You never know how a team will react.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish (4-1) lost a brutal one on Thursday, one that they had no business losing to an inferior opponent. It takes some resolve and toughness to bounce back a day later and take on a tournament-quality opponent.
It was impossible to know how they would respond, but a blistering first half showed that the Irish were just fine. They took on a very early seven-point deficit to the Iowa Hawkeyes (3-2) four minutes into the game and just exploded from there. Notre Dame's next 16 minutes saw them outscore Iowa 34-15 to give them a 12-point halftime lead.
They were led in the first half offensively by V.J. Beachem with his 14, but more impressively, the Irish turned in a complete team effort on defense that was pesky, aggressive, and physical. The Hawkeyes had no answer, especially during a nearly ten-minute stretch in which they scored just one field goal.
But Iowa is too good of a squad to keep down for 40 minutes. The two teams had a nice back-and-forth coming out of halftime, and the Irish were actually able to extend their lead to 15 by the first timeout.
The next six minutes, however, were all Hawkeyes. Iowa went on a 16-0 run that saw them take a one-point lead after just having been dominated for most of the night by the Irish. If overcoming the adversity of last night's loss wasn't enough, Notre Dame had to now bounce back from letting that huge lead slip through their fingers.
But, again showing plenty of resolve, the Irish answered, as Demetrius Jackson responded immediately with a cool, mid-range jumper to regain the lead. This was a lead Notre Dame would not relinquish.
For the closing possessions, Jackson took over, assisting to Bonzie Colson on identical pick-and-roll plays on back-to-back possessions, then taking one himself with a lay-in to extend the Irish lead to eight. Notre Dame withstood a series of inbounds and free throws to come away with the six-point victory.
Beachem led a balanced Irish scoring attack with 16. Jackson had 12, Colson added 11 with 8 boards, and Matt Ryan hit double-digits for the first time in his young career with 11 in 26 quality minutes. Zach Auguste struggled to really get going but grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds, including many tough boards in plenty of traffic.
Iowa was led by their star senior forward Jarrod Uthoff and his game-high 20 points. Adam Woodbury had a double-double 14 and 10 in which he went 7 of 9 from the floor, mostly off the pick-and-roll. The Notre Dame backcourt held Iowa's three starting guards to just 9 of 33 shooting, a major factor in picking up the win and huge credit to the work of Jackson, Ryan, Vasturia, and Matt Farrell.
It might not make all the many waves across the college hoops landscape, but this was a big one for the Irish, proving to themselves how they can overcome adversity and play winning basketball on the defensive end. There will still be growing pains, and this game made that quite evident, but it's a whole lot better to win while you grow as a team than what we saw on Thursday night.
Notre Dame will take on Alabama on Sunday evening at 7pm EST on ESPNU in what I suppose amounts to the 5th place game.
Other Thoughts and Observations:
- I wanted a bench scoring threat, and I got one in Matt Ryan. His eight points in the first half really fueled the big run, and he hit 3 of 4 free throws at the end to ice things after Jackson and Beachem both missed front ends of 1-and-1s. He also just generally flowed within the offense more comfortably, showed he can handle the ball a little more, and looked fine defensively. Brey should be more confident in Ryan for plenty of minutes moving forward.
- Free throws were a problem again. Just 10 of 15, including the aforementioned missed front ends of 1-and-1s by Notre Dame's upperclassman leaders. This should've been a 10-point victory, but instead these missed free throws made it more interesting at the end.
- Zach Auguste's pick-and-roll defense needs work. I understand the switching philosophy and making someone like Woodbury beat you, but Auguste just kept over-committing to it and couldn't recover or close off passing lanes. He has to hedge a little better and/or needs some help from the wing defenders on the rolling big man, because there were just a few too many easy possessions for the Hawkeyes in the second half.
- I know the offense really struggled in the second half, but I still thought they generally flowed well with lots of movement. I think this bunch is guilty of being overly patient sometimes and they have definitely gotten themselves into trouble with some uncharacteristic sloppiness, but I do have some faith that they are really working out the offense with this personnel after watching this game.
- Crisis was averted with this one. It's a quality win, and they should be able to knock off Alabama on Sunday for a 2-1 trip to Orlando. Not what we all hoped, but an alright outcome nonetheless. I still think the next 5 games will tell the story with this team, but this game was a good start. We'll learn a lot in these next two weeks.
- This team could've easily caved to the adversity, losing a huge lead the day after collapsing against a mid-major opponent. But they stayed calm and within themselves, continued to battle on defense, and found some quality looks to take back control of the game. Big, big, big win that I think these guys will get a lot of mileage out of in terms of their attitudes and mental toughness. Irish fans should be thrilled with this win.