In an exciting matchup that featured two nearly polar opposite halves, the Fighting Irish hoops team came away with a 84-79 victory over Illinois in their Big 10/ACC Challenge showdown.
Coming off a demoralizing loss to Alabama in the final game of the Advocare Invitational, the Irish really needed to avoid a similar letdown to the 3-3 Fighting Illini. Illinois has been plagued with injury problems and has already dropped games to North Florida and Chattanooga. However, this game had added meaning for the Illini, as it was the first game in their newly renovated State Farm Center. Legendary Illinois coach Lou Henson, in whose name the new court is dedicated, was in attendance, and the game certainly felt very important to the home fans.
The crowd was absolutely rocking in what must have been a sharp contrast to the rather dull crowds that the Irish saw at the Advocare. The Illini fed off this atmosphere early, defending with frantic energy and knocking down shots early. The Irish had a hugely uncharacteristic 5 turnovers in the first 6 minutes of the contest, and their transition defense left something to be desired as the Illini grabbed an early 13-7 lead.
As the half progressed, the Irish looked lost on the offensive ends for periods of time. Demetrius Jackson had his worst half in quite some time, losing his dribble in bad places and jacking up some bad, contested shots. He had the look of a guy trying to force the Irish out of their slump, to no avail.
On the defensive end, the Irish seemed content to let the Illini decide their fate with deep shooting. However, the Irish were very lax with closing out on shooters, and the Illinois shooters thrived, knocking down most of their first-half shots.
Midway through the half, the Irish countered with a mini-run fueled by the bench. The permanently shooting Matt Ryan swished a deep three to pull the Irish within 3. Matt Farrell had probably his best performance of the year, drawing a wily and-1 play and coming up with some sorely-needed hustle plays through recovering rebounds.
After the Irish briefly claimed a 3-point lead, Illinois closed out the half with a 16-5 run. The Irish offense went totally stagnant, and Illinois executed very well on the offensive end, only turning the ball over once in the entire half. Facing a 41-33 halftime deficit, it looked as though the Irish's nightmare non-conference season might continue.
Instead, we were treated to the Irish's best half of basketball they have played all season. Coach Mike Brey made the shift to the 2-3 zone defense early on in the second half, which successfully stymied the Illini shooters. It didn't seem as though Illinois could maintain their hot shooting from the first half, but the zone coaxed many more contested jumpers. Illinois couldn't hit any of these, going absolutely ice-cold and making only 2 of their first 18 field-goal attempts. The Irish stayed in the zone for the remainder of the game, and it looks like it could be a weapon that Mike Brey pulls out more often in the conference season this year.
Meanwhile, the Irish offense totally turned everything around. They looked a lot calmer going through their sets, resulting in more open looks. V.J. Beachem, despite not having a great game, drained a couple of corner 3's to pull the Irish within a point of the lead. Zach Auguste had a monster second half, showing off some beautiful footwork and getting around the Illinois big men with ease. He ended the game with a solid 16 points and 14 rebounds, even hitting a couple free throws after being intentionally fouled in a measure of redemption after the crucial misses against Alabama.
For the last 10 minutes of the game, the Irish were able to keep Illinois at arm's length, keeping the lead safely around 10. With the Illinois shooting going so cold, the crowd was taken completely out of the game, which felt big for Notre Dame. The few shots that Illinois hit in the second half were quickly countered by Irish baskets, and the Illini momentum that had been amassed in the first half was gone just like that.
The last minute of the game featured a lot of Illinois fouling despite being down as much as 14 with 30 seconds left. Illinois randomly got really hot in these last few seconds, managing to cut the deficit all the way to 5 despite never even being within a Jerian Grant miracle of getting back into the game.
Miscellaneous thoughts on the game
- Demetrius Jackson, despite struggling mightily in the first half, came back to have a fantastic second half performance. He looked very frustrated at times in the first half, but he managed to stay composed and finish the day with a great shooting performance. Stuck on only 4 points well into the second half, DJ did something the Jerian Grant did many times last year, which was step up late in the game. He hit 3-4 three-pointers and sliced to the hoop for some easy layups. His temper almost got him in trouble when an Illinois player bumped him heading into a timeout, but the coaching staff quickly got him back to the bench.
- Despite this performance from Jackson, Steve Vasturia was hands-down my player of the game. Coming off a season-high of 18 points against Alabama, Vasturia topped himself and put up 21 on 9-14 shooting. He knocked down his open threes and slinked his way into the lane for some of his characteristic smooth left-handed finishes. Vasturia isn't a guy that will take over a game, but he continues to be a constant positive on the court.
- Matt Farrell set his career-high with 10 points. Many of them came in garbage-time free-throws, but this was still a very encouraging performance from Farrell. He still hasn't really had a great shooting performance yet, but his probing drives to the hoop provided some nice changes of pace for the at-times stagnant Irish offense. Coach Brey clearly appreciated his effort, giving 23 minutes, equaling that of starter V.J. Beachem.
- With the win, the Irish move to 2-0 against the Big 10 this year, with a chance to take down Indiana at the Crossroads Classic for the sweep of the B1G teams that start with "I". Those Monmouth and Alabama losses aren't going to go away, but the Irish can certainly still make this a moderately successful non-conference schedule.
- The Irish seem to be teetering on the line of being a mediocre or very good team. The first-half Irish were very reminiscent of the 15-win 2013-14 squad, the worst in Brey's tenure. On the other hand, the second-half Irish looked like an offensive powerhouse that no one will want to play, akin to last year. This team simply has too much talent to sink to the lows of 2013-14, but we'll see if they can achieve the consistency necessary to climb back into the top 25 nationally. This certainly felt like a step in the right direction, and a big win for the Irish.