Notes: Matt Farrell's hustle drives Notre Dame men's basketeball team

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Viral videos and Notre Dame junior guard Matt Farrell have made for a unique marriage this college basketball season.

Last month, reunion footage of Farrell and his older brother, Bo, who was supposed to be on duty as a U.S. Army first lieutenant stationed in Afghanistan, became a must-see Christmas story after Bo came bounding out of the locker room to surprise his sibling after a game.

On Saturday, Farrell’s late hustle play against Virginia Tech, which helped the Irish move to 5-0 and alone in first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, was something fans couldn’t see enough.

V.J. Beachem gave the Irish a three-point lead with 47.6 seconds remaining in Cassell Coliseum when the Hokies tried to save a few seconds on Chris Clarke’s inbound pass.

Virginia Tech guard Justin Robinson allowed the ball to roll toward halfcourt before any thought of picking it up. But as the ball kept rolling, Farrell’s mind kept racing. And planning.

Beachem had mentioned to Farrell earlier in the half that the Hokies were rolling the ball up the floor after made baskets on several occasions. Farrell filed that intel away with the idea that he might be able to make a play for it if all the conditions were right.

They were right.

As Robinson let the ball keep going, Farrell played off his plan to perfection. He gestured toward the bench and yelled something in the vicinity of coach Mike Brey. In the process, it allowed Robinson to drop his guard.

“I was just kind of looking over at Coach, make hand gestures just to try and get (Robinson) not looking at me,” Farrell said. “It ended up working out.”

As Farrell seemed in mid-yell, he jumped back into action and made an all-out dive for the ball. He pounced on it and stunned Robinson in the process.

“It’s just a flat-out fumble recovery,” Brey said. “Just a heck of a play by a guy who’s really confident and really has been amazing in the moment, crunch time.”

Farrell wasn’t done. He had enough presence and poise to get up and dribble hard toward the hoop. With Clarke closing, Farrell slipped a pass to freshman guard T.J. Gibbs, who he could hear hollering that he was trailing on the play. Gibbs’ layup put the Irish up by five.

“It was a crazy play,” Beachem said. “When he did it, I was like, ‘Yo, it’s lit.’”

Farrell tried to make similar plays like it in high school. He was called for fouls twice.

“Just a fearless play,” he said.

While spending part of his Sunday watching Aaron Rodgers work his late-game magic in NFL playoff win over the Dallas Cowboys, Brey thought of the play his point guard made the previous day. He grabbed his phone.

“I texted him – ‘You’re my Aaron Rodgers,’” Brey said. “There’s an edge about him. It’s symbolic of the toughness that our group has.”

Gibbs good

A quick turnaround league test under trying circumstances in a difficult environment failed to fluster Irish freshman guard T.J. Gibbs.

Looking to bounce back from his OK play two nights earlier at Miami (Fla.), Gibbs enjoyed a career game Saturday against Virginia Tech.

Working often alongside Farrell for stretches, Gibbs scored a career-high 13 points in 17 minutes. He had eight in the second half.

“I played confident,” Gibbs said Monday. “I was just letting the game come to me and I was able to hit shots.”

That’s something Gibbs didn’t do down in South Florida, where his 1-for-5 from the field didn’t sit so well.

“I got it out of my head and was able to come back,” Gibbs said.

Tag-teaming with Farrell in the second half also helped. Everything. The Irish stayed in a relatively solid offensive rhythm because the Hokies weren’t able to focus all of their defensive efforts on only one handler. Gibbs played well. Farrell played well.

“That definitely gives the team a different dynamic,” Gibbs said. “I’m able to feed off Matt’s energy a lot. Just having another point guard in the game is an easing factor for me and for him.”

Gibbs was good Saturday in getting to the basket. Four of his five buckets were right at the rim, where he was able to use his lanky 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame to finish.

“God, that was huge,” Brey said of Gibbs’ overall game. “He’s just mature beyond his years. He has got a great toughness about him and believes.”

Poll snub?

Alone in first place in the ACC, Notre Dame (16-2; 5-0) is the only team in the league without a loss. The Irish have won three-straight on the road, each in dramatic fashion.

It wasn’t enough to convince Associated Press poll voters to vault Notre Dame into the Top 10 of Monday’s latest poll. After spending the previous five weeks in the 20s, the Irish jumped five spots to No. 15.

Three others ACC teams (North Carolina at 9, Florida State at 10 and Louisville at 12) are ranked higher, something that doesn’t bother Brey or his players.

“We’re all good, man,” Brey said less than an hour after the rankings were revealed. “What were we today, 27? I lobbied for 27. We’ll take what we’ve got. I love where we’re at.”

“I’m not surprised,” Beachem said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

Defensive doings

Notre Dame definitely packed its defense – its 2-3 zone defense – on its four-day, two-city ACC tour.

Games against Miami (Fla.) and Virginia Tech each turned in the second half in part because Notre Dame changed up its man defense for zone.

Brey has taken more of a liking to the zone than in recent seasons. Not only does it force teams to make basketball plays against it, the Irish have the length and quickness and instincts to be good in it. They can close down passing lanes, deflect entry passes, get stops and run. That’s not often been the case.

“When you play against zone, you have to handle the ball and think more as a team offensively,” Brey said. “We’re pretty quick in it. That’s when we’ve gotten some deflections and steals.”

Zone allows power forward Martinas Geben to patrol the middle with his 6-foot-10, 255-pound frame while Beachem and Steve Vasturia and Bonzie Colson and Gibbs and Rex Pflueger can operate like football free safeties, roaming open areas waiting to make plays.

“We’re good in it because we’re a good defensive team,” Brey said. “So it doesn’t matter what we play.”

A big dose of zone limited the Hurricanes to 38.1 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from 3. The Hokies shot 49.1 percent from the field in the second half, only 27.8 percent from 3. They also scored only 12 points the final six minutes.

Honor guard

Having Notre Dame senior guard Steve Vasturia earn ACC player of the week honors kept Brey from taking up the issue with the league office down in Greensboro, N.C.

“If he’s not player of the week this week, I’m going to call a Tobacco Road conspiracy.” Brey said hours before the honor became official.

It’s the first league player of the week recongition in Vasturia’s career. He’s averaging career highs for points (15.0), rebounds (3.6) and assists (3.3) in 32.7 minutes.

During Monday’s weekly league coaches teleconference, Brey didn’t hold back when the subject of his co-captain arose. Brey mentioned last week that when it’s all over, Vasturia will be considered among the greatest to ever wear an Irish uniform. In any era. He stood by that stance Monday.

“He’s done it all for us,” Brey said. “He gives us a big-time belief. I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a guy when he came in as a freshman that had a better feel for the game.

“He had a feel for the game of a 28-year-old NBA guy.”

Vasturia will make consecutive start No. 100 on Wednesday against Florida State.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

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