There are a few of us on the OFD basketball writing staff who are Bill Raftery aficionados. The Irish Catholic announcer was on the mic when I was a young kid watching Jerome Lane "send it in," and his booth with Bilas and McDonough is still the peak of ESPN basketball announcing. Coach Raf had a great call when a guy made a particularly gutsy play. He'd shout "ONIONS!" in his clipped
Boston Jersey tone. Even if you weren't a huge fan of attributing courageous plays to vegetable equivalents of male anatomy, it was still fun.
Early in Steve Vasturia's career, in a difficult season, he demonstrated a remarkable knack for making the biggest plays at the time his team most needed him. By the end of that difficult freshman campaign, I took to referring to the Philly native as Onions because autocorrect didn't screw it up on my phone. In the time since, the media has decided on a #narrative for Vasturia. Nearly every ESPN announcer who has worked an Irish game over his 3 years has referred to Vasturia as a spot up shooter. Other than some uncomfortable moments of announcing affection from Doris Burke, Vasturia is a guy who continuously receives surprised praise from the color man working the game for Vasturia's effectiveness off the bounce. Laziness.
Perhaps if you peel the onion another layer, you'd start to learn a little more. First, on a team that features both Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson, being the 3rd or 4th best option off the dribble isn't like you necessarily suck at it. It just means you're not going to be asked to do it with any regularity. Second, the emphasis on freedom of movement has been a godsend to someone who is very good at working angles and turning defenders around. After a masterful second half in Notre Dame's 71-66 victory over Louisville, perhaps we can start to put away that lazy narrative and start talking about a quiet leader with a fantastic floor game and superlative sense of when his team needs him most.
On an afternoon that felt like Old Home Day at Purcell Pavillion, Notre Dame defeated the Louisville Cardinals for their second straight home victory over a ranked opponent. With Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton choosing to spend their time off of their NBA schedules in South Bend, Notre Dame's current stars decided to put on a show for their former teammates. Demetrius Jackson put up a scorching 20 points in the first half. He ended the game leading all scorers with 27 points on 7-15 overall shooting, 6-12 from deep, and 7-7 from the line. Jackson was a one man wrecking crew in the first half. Having regained his stroke from deep, the Cardinals had a hard time containing DJ.
Even with the flourish from the Mishawaka native and key-to-the-city recipient, it wasn't enough to get on top of Rick Pitino's squad. The Cardinals used a burst of good fortune and hustle to end the half on a run and send the game to the locker room with ND down 7. Unfortunately, the deflating end to the first period carried over into the start of the second half and the Cardinals ran their lead up to 10. Vasturia made a layup to cut it to 8, but Louisville answers with a 3 to run it to 11. Vasturia scores again to get it back to 9. Coming out of the media break, he scores again to cut it to 9. Vasturia single handedly keeps ND in the game for a good 5 minute stretch and triggers the Irish run when he scores his 9th straight point for the Irish on a made 3 that cuts the game to 7. From there Beachem makes an incredibly athletic play that cuts the lead to 5 and starts cranking up the Legion big time. Onions just keeps coming with the guts needed to grind out a win over a ranked opponent at home. He gets 2 from the line to cut it to 4, keeps it at 4 with a huge reverse lay-up.
For my money, the biggest moment of the game came with about 8 minutes remaining. DJ had drained a big 3 to cut the Cardinal lead to 3 and the Irish managed a stop. Brey was milking the clock a little bit, and as the shot clock wound down, everyone in the building assumed a ball screen was coming for DJ. It made all the sense in the world. DJ was killing, but Brey called out to move Auguste's screen over to a sideline pin-down for Vasturia. The junior took one dribble right, crossed over, and accelerated to the rim with his left, and finished a nifty little reverse to pull the Irish within one vs. the potent Louisville shot blocking. Onions.
That play seemed to take a lot of the wind out of the Cardinals' sails. On a night that felt like there were a lot of odd developments and the Irish seemed unable to get the big basket after making a big stop, the junior from Philly we like to call Onions put in a back-breaker late in the shot clock. When DJ found Auguste on the roll for a 2 hand rim rattler, the roof came off the JACC. The Legion decided it was their turn to impact this one, and Louisville looked rattled. Damion Lee's shot selection wavered on a few trips and the Cardinals committed several turnovers late to open the door for this opportunistic Irish team. With the heroes of the ACC Championship season looking on, this team took a massive leap towards a potential ACC regular season crown.
As was mentioned earlier, the balance that was a hallmark of wins over UNC and Clemson wasn't in the cards on Saturday. The Irish were paced by DJ's 27 and Vasturia's 20. Outside of that, Zach Auguste put up 11 to go with 12 rebounds (11 defensive). The double-double machine from Massachusetts just keeps rolling. Bonzie Colson chipped in 8, mostly in the first half. Big Baby also grabbed 10 boards on the night and contributed 2 blocks. VJ Beachem rounded out the scoring with 5 points. The Indiana junior was only 1-4 from the floor and missed a crucial front end of a 1-1 late. However, if they awarded style points, VJ might have led the team. The layup he made off a loose ball scrum was enough to bring his NBA buddies to their feet (and me in my living room) with his prodigious athleticism on display. He also made an absolutely unconscious 3 in transition. When VJ finally explodes, look out. The freshmen were the only bench players to get minutes, but neither Matt Ryan nor Rex Pflueger made their way into the scoring column.
On the Louisville side, the Cardinals were led by 13 from Damion Lee, who made 4-9 from deep. Right behind him were Quentin Snider, Trey Lewis, and Donovan Mitchell with 12, 11, and 10 respectively. Cardinal big man Chinanu Onuaku contributed 4 blocks and 6 points but picked up 4 personal fouls that limited his effectiveness vs. the Irish.
From a four factors perspective, it was nice to finally see ND outshoot an opponent. Notre Dame put up a 51% eFG night and held the Cardinals to 47%. The Irish lost the TO battle 9-7, but holding to your season turnover average against the top ACC team in turning opponents over has to feel like a win. With the remarkable length Pitino can put on the floor, the Irish held their own on the boards, and grabbed 13 of their own misses to Louisville's 9. Winning that OREB battle vs. a team like Louisville is a remarkable accomplishment for Brey's squad. The Irish made 14 FT's on 56 FGA for 25% and the Cards 12 FT's on 58FGA for 21%. Keeping the Cardinals at their season average for shooting has to be considered one of the main keys for the game. Louisville has the top FG defense in the conference, but the Irish still managed to surpass 50% from the floor and dug out a massive victory at home.
Speaking of announcing, did everyone enjoy Miles Simon as much as I did? Other than incorrectly identifying the 2nd or 3rd possession we played zone as the "first time," he was excellent and observant. He credited the ND run with their ability to lock in, make stops and rebound misses in the second half. In that sense, this team is showing flashes of what made last season so special. They're still a historically great offense in terms of overall efficiency. Now, they're starting to find that defensive gear when they need it. Are they going to transform in to a top 50 defense? Of course not. However, they are finding a way to dig in and get a stop or a kill to turn a game, even against brand-name competition. We're never going to love the overall Irish defense, but if they can be an occasional booty call when needed, as Irish fans, we should take it.
The win leaves Notre Dame at 9-4 in the ACC standings. The Irish stand tied with Virginia, who holds the tiebreaker over ND and a half game ahead of Duke, who ND owns the tiebreaker over. North Carolina sits atop the league at 9-2, facing Pitt tomorrow and has 2 big match-up's with Duke remaining to go along with Miami and a trip to Virginia. I've been told there's a moratorium on golf references, so I'll spare you those and break down where a game like that leaves the Irish. I think most of the bubble talk should be behind us. Goal number one now needs to be securing a double-bye in DC. From there, you can even see a path to an ACC regular-season championship, but let's just hold the phone on that one and enjoy another Saturday win over another ranked and brand name opponent.
[Note: This article was edited Sunday morning to indicate Raf's Jersey roots thx to NJZoo]