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Notre Dame Basketball Defeats Michigan State in a 79-78 OT Thriller

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The Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball team scored their biggest victory of the season Wednesday night by taking down Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans 79-78 in overtime.

FIDM Highlight Package

For my next trip to confession, I'll have to admit: I lost the faith. With Notre Dame deadlocked with Michigan State at 67 and time ticking down, things didn't look great. Denzel Valentine just converted a heroic 3-pointer to cancel out Jerian Grant's preceding three. Notre Dame had the ball with 50 seconds on the clock and no timeouts. At home, you'd love to see the Irish try to go 2-for-1 there, but instead they held for a very difficult Grant three, that missed. Now MSU had a full 14 seconds to come down and put a dagger in Irish fans' hearts. This was a movie we have all seen before. I had lost my faith.

Luckily, Jerian Grant provided a great testament to the value of ball pressure, and just as Valentine went to push Grant off with his left arm and step back for the shot, he dribbled the ball off his right foot and out of bounds with 2.3 seconds remaining. Even luckier, the Irish got a very fortunate bonus timeout as the officials reviewed the play to get the clock right. This let Brey put in a sideline out of bounds play to hopefully close out the game. The Irish managed to get the ball in bounds on a fastball from Pat Connaughton to Grant. The play that followed is rife with controversy - even in the Irish head coach's mind. Grant makes the contested catch, comes down and takes 2 dribbles to the rim where he rises to finish. Just like Providence, Grant has a slight bobble on the way up, but his legs are clipped by Valentine when he releases his shot as time expires. Grant misses, and no foul is called. During the game, Brey implored the officials to "Have the balls to call that." (Thanks ESPN for that clear lip reading opportunity), but in his post-game remarks, Brey said, "I think that was the right call because he bobbled it before he was hit."

I, for one, am very relieved the Irish managed to prevail in OT and negate much of the discussion of this call. I'm not sure where in the rule book it says that because you slightly bobble the ball, a guy can make contact with your legs as you're going up to score, so I'm more likely to agree with Brey's first assessment. However, as Irish football fans are painfully aware, the ability for officials to determine the outcome in late game situations can create some wildly differing opinions.

In the end, the Irish made plays in OT and found their way in to an extremely satisfying 79-78 victory.

Digging in to the Box Score

Wednesday night, the Fighting Irish demonstrated why there are four factors to winning basketball. The Spartans out-shot Notre Dame, particularly from behind the arc, where they were 9-17. Overall, Izzo's team shot 56% eFG and held Notre Dame to 53% eFG. After burning up the Purcell Pavillion nets in earlier home games, Notre Dame was only 7-23 from deep. Steve Vasturia was 2-4 from downtown, Demetrius Jackson 2-5, Grant 2-8 and Connaugthon 1-6. On the flipside, Bryn Forbes went 4-4 from deep and Valentine shot 4-7.

In addition to outshooting the Irish, the Spartans beat Notre Dame like a drum on the glass. This was a primary concern for every Notre Dame fan, and Brey put it well in his postgame remarks:

"I knew they'd be able to play volleyball on us. I didn't know it was going to be that bad, but at least it didn't beat us."

We talked about hit, find, fetch in our game preview, and the Spartans used it to perfection. They out rebounded the Irish 43-26 overall. Amazingly, the Spartans had as many offensive rebounds as Notre Dame had defensive rebounds. I think it is pretty rare to pull out a game where you only achieve a 50% DREB rate.

Outshot, and out rebounded, how did the Irish manage to get through this? The answer is in the final two factors. First, the Irish took tremendous care of the basketball. In a hard-fought, overtime game against a gritty defensive opponent, Notre Dame only turned the ball over 4 times and gave up only 2 steals. That's a remarkable 6.2% TO rate. On the flip side, Notre Dame stole the ball 7 times (10.9%) and turned over the Spartans 12 times for an 18.8% TO rate. That helped make up for a portion of the extra possessions the Spartans were able to generate on their offensive glass.

Second, the Irish got to the line and converted. MSU was whistled for 22 fouls on the night and the Irish shot 25 FT's for their 56 FGA, good for a 45% FT rate. Most importantly, they cashed in when they got there, making 20 of those attempts for 80% FT shooting. Jackson went 6-8, including a critical one down the stretch. Those of you who've played know just how hard it is to step up and knock that second one down after clanging the first one. Massive credit to DJ for hitting what proved to be the difference-maker. Grant was 7-8, Vasturia 2-3, and the captain was a perfect 5-5 from the stripe. Mike Brey's squad only sent the Spartans to the line 9 times on the night, where they converted a cool 5 for 56%. Notre Dame outscored MSU 20-5 from the charity stripe. Getting into the bonus with 9:20 left in the game was critical to ND's success.

With both teams shooting about 50% on the night, the extra 15 points ND earned from the stripe were worth seven or eight extra possessions. Notre Dame also found an extra eight possessions in the turnover differential. Those 16 extra opportunities allowed the Irish to overcome a -10 offensive rebounding differential and good shooting by MSU. The mathematics of basketball are a beautiful thing.

Player Performances

Mike Brey beamed in his postgame press conference that he had the best backcourt in America, and the tape left a lot of great evidence to back him up. Demetrius Jackson had his most confident and complete performance in a Notre Dame uniform. On the defensive end, he was incredibly disruptive versus Travis Trice. To be fair to Trice, he has been under the weather and enduring the Spartans grueling early schedule, but DJ managed to hold Trice to 3-13 shooting on the night with two turnovers. Trice's ORtg was over 35 points below his season average. On the offensive end, Jackson was 7-11 from the floor with a spectacular 73%eFG and only a single turnover to go with his assist and 2 steals.

Grant continues to be the straw that stirs the drink, and he spoke to FIDM's Ryan Camden after the game.

ESPN flashed a remarkable statistic noting the overwhelming portion of Notre Dame's points that Grant either scored or assisted. He shot 59% eFG and led all scorers with 27 on the night to go with his 6 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 steals and a block. He managed to only turn it over two times on the night. His presence on the floor makes everyone better. He made some crazy NBA-level moves that made ESPN's Doris Burke swoon (although not as much as she did over DJ's body). That's fantastic, but I want to focus on one play Grant made with 17 minutes to go in the game. After Notre Dame turned MSU over, they got out on the break. Grant caught the ball ahead of the pack, but saw Zach Auguste running the floor hard. Grant could have easily turned and finished the play himself, but decided to reward his big man for running hard and get him a monster dunk. We'll talk more about Auguste's struggles in a bit, but Grant made a very clear and conscious decision to get Auguste a big dunk in an effort to get Zach going. Spectacular leadership and character from the senior.

The Captain didn't have his finest shooting night. Pat Connaughton managed only 3-11 from the floor with 1-6 from behind the arc. That's a rough 32% eFG, but as mentioned earlier he canned all 5 of his FT's. After the game, the senior said that kind of shooting night might have put him in the tank previously. Instead, Connaughton had a very complete floor game, leading the Irish with 8 boards (6 DREB), 2 steals and 2 blocks. He didn't have a single turnover and committed only 2 fouls in 44 minutes of play. It was a tremendous "glue" game by the Irish captain.

Steve Vasturia was also great glue in the Irish "mid court." With DJ and Grant representing the back court, it is hard to label Connaughton and Vasturia as front court guys because offensively they stretch teams and defensively, they both defend well inside and out, so let's just call them the mid court. Vasturia shot a wonderful 71% eFG, driven by 2-4 shooting from behind the arc. He also did a ton of work that didn't show up on the stat sheet. He was a stabilizing force most of the night, and it was great to see him run to Connaughton after the Irish had to burn their timeout in OT to get the ball inbounds from under MSU's basket. Vasturia was clearly saying, "Get me the ball," in a situation where he was sure to be fouled. He wanted the pressure of those FT's and wasn't afraid of the moment.

For as good as the back and mid court was for Notre Dame Wednesday night, the front line struggled. Branden Dawson has the raw athletic ability to make a lot of people struggle, and Gavin Schilling is a load down low. Unfortunately, Zach Auguste was unable to rise to the occasion. In only 19 minutes of play, the junior went 2-7 from the floor, mostly on highly contested post moves, and managed to only grab 4 rebounds. He couldn't seem to muster the defensive intensity and concentration necessary to slow down the Spartan attack, and frankly, lost his place in the game because of it. Auguste was pulled with 8:08 left in regulation with the Irish down six after giving up the and-1 to Schilling down low in the 2-3 zone. Auguste never returned to the game. Martinas Geben seemed to be the most logical next-man-in on the front-line, but the freshman also struggled in his first appearance versus this sort of competition. He looked rushed on the offensive end of the floor, going 0-2, including one that came off the bottom of the rim. Defensively, Geben really struggled early vs. the MSU pick and roll. Indecision killed the Lithuanian big man as he floated through the pick and roll instead of hedging hard to the ball or diving hard back to the roller. Luckily, he improved his pick and roll defense during his second stint on the floor - demonstrating great coachability. Unfortunately for him, his overall performance was only able to earn him 11 minutes on the night, in which he didn't have a single rebound. Austin Burgett also had another rough outing, causing some questions about the health of his balky ankle from a few weeks back. The junior played a single minute, and picked up 2 (very questionable) fouls. These 3 guys managed to contribute only 4 rebounds of the Irish 26 overall rebounds on the night. That's a big concern moving forward.

The guy in the front court that benefited from Auguste's struggles was sophomore Austin Torres. Getting a season-high 19 minutes, including the bulk of the 2nd half, and all of OT, Torres made his most of the opportunity under the big lights. He was physical and disruptive on the defensive end, grabbed 4 boards, and brought a ton of energy the whole night. He's definitely great for chemistry and his head coach noted after the game, "he understands his role: do the dirty work, screen and rebound." At times it looks like ND is playing with 4 guys on the offensive end when Torres is in the game because he handles the ball so infrequently, but his screening on the ball is the best I've seen since Rob Kurz wore the Irish uniform. Those screens get defenses scrambling and lead to open shots for the Irish. For those calling Torres a throw-in to get DJ in an Irish uniform, Austin was glad to prove them wrong with a big performance in a huge game.

Rotations

From a minutes/rotations point of view, it was a Mike Brey kind of night. I predicted in the preview thread that the bench would only see 20 minutes, but Torres almost blew that out on his own. Without V.J. Beachem, who is out for the month of December, the Irish were thin on bench contribution. Grant played all 45 minutes, Connaughton and DJ both 44, and Vasturia 42. That's a lot of wear and tear on the "main guys," and only 2 points in 32 minutes from the Irish bench. This needs to improve as Notre Dame moves in to the grind of ACC play. Let's hope that the tear in V.J.'s plantar fascia heals quickly and completely.

Going Forward

There's no question this is a big win for the Irish, and hopefully it can help the team build some momentum internally, on campus, and with the national media. This is a fun team to watch, with tremendous talent and the ability to play with almost anyone.

Defensively, ball pressure remains the key for Notre Dame, even in the 2-3 defense. I thought the zone looked much more active tonight, particularly when Torres played in the middle. MSU only carved it up badly one or two times with some great passing. The Spartans are a very underrated passing team who assists on nearly 60% of their FG's. When the Irish use DJ to disrupt opposing offenses and push point guards up the floor and off the ball, Grant, Vasturia and Connaughton have all shown tremendous hands and ability to get in to passing lanes. Particularly against physical teams, this will be critical going forward because the Irish will have to be able to make up for lost possessions given up on the glass.

Offensively, the Irish still look a little too static to me, but this is one of the better defensive teams they'll see all year and guys like Dawson, Valentine, and Shilling are among the most athletic defenders they'll face. I hope Brey doesn't abandon all post presence moving forward. The Irish bigs need to be able to make a catch on the block, but instead of forcing up a shot, they need to start looking diagonally to the weak side. We've got shooters spotted up on nearly every post catch. Even if double teams don't come, which against competition like MSU won't, that diagonal pass moves the defense and opens things up quickly. I'd also like to see Brey send Grant into the post more often. He's going to have a size advantage in a lot of matchup's, and he's shown a wonderful fadeaway touch his whole career.

The biggest concern coming out of this game is the mental state of Zach Auguste. He seemed to regress badly in this game and it clearly caught the ire of the Irish coaching staff. Much like last year, at his best Auguste is a physical beast and a load to handle in transition. Unfortunately, at his worst Auguste is forcing shots in the post and begging for calls around the rim. When that behavior pattern starts, his body language and energy level on the defensive end seems to tail off dramatically. Whether it is player leadership or the coaching staff, someone needs to get through to the junior just how valuable he can be if he can develop some grit and learn to relish the dirty work of the game. Auguste is a gifted athlete and a skilled player; he can have a massive contribution. If not, the Irish could be playing a lot of small ball with the 6'7" Torres being the one in the four-around-one looks. Let's all hope this was an off night and a wake-up call for Auguste in addition to the emergence of Torres as a valuable contributor.

Mike Brey Postgame Remarks

I'll be the first to admit that I give Brey an undue amount of grief for what I perceive as in-game clock management errors, and this game had a prime example. Our OFD hoops staff went wild on Twitter and on an e-mail inboxes when Brey burnt a timeout with 5:23 left in the second half and then left himself with none after 1:32 remaining in regulation. Thankfully, an official review gave him some time to get a play in at the end of regulation. Interestingly, he did save his final one in OT, which proved critical when ND struggled to get the ball in.

Brey also did a very nice bit of game management at the end of the first half when he protected Grant, who had 2 fouls, on a defensive possession and then used his timeout to get Grant back in the game to get up a good shot before the end of the half.

Fashion Police

By the way, in case Santa is reading, I've been good, and these are definitely on my list in a size 11...