The Fighting Irish found themselves in yet another close game late, and for the second game in a row, Steve Vasturia delivered the heroics en route to victory. It wasn’t overtime as we are all accustomed to seeing with these two teams, but it was thriller. Here’s what we learned from Notre Dame’s 77-70 win over the ninth-ranked Louisville Cardinals.
Free Throws Can Win Basketball Games, And The Irish Can Shoot ‘Em
These two things, when looked at independently, aren’t really news for anyone watching college basketball this year. Or any year. Or any basketball at all, I suppose.
This year, the Irish have been all but automatic from the free throw line. In fact, they are statistically the best free throw shooting team in the nation. The issue, really, has been getting to the line.
In their late-game collapse against top-ranked Villanova, Notre Dame only shot six free throws. They made all six, but you’ve gotta get to the line more when it’s a major strength of your team. In their loss to Purdue - another game in which the Irish blew a double-digit lead to a ranked team - they only shot eight free throws, seven of which they made. Even in the thrilling one-point win at Pitt, Notre Dame only shot 10 free throws.
Last night against the Cardinals, the Irish were 22 of 25 from the free throw line. There are a few things to discuss about this stat.
First off, Louisville fouls. Their defense is aggressive, they press, and there is a lot of hand checking and slapping. So naturally, they will commit more fouls and the Irish will find themselves in the bonus and double bonus earlier than in other games. Last night, a few trips to the line on hand-checks, blocks and shooting fouls compensated for that all-too-familiar stretch late in the second half where the Irish can’t buy a bucket from the field.
At the same time, Louisville’s defense also forced Notre Dame to drive the ball. Think about this little statistic: against Louisville, Notre Dame only registered six assists. Points were scored on drives, pump fakes and pull-ups, and free throws as a result.
Notre Dame can be Versatile Offensively, and That Should Scare the ACC
Speaking of Louisville’s defense, forcing the Irish to deviate slightly from the usual offensive approach of move the ball, drive and kick, knock down shots, revealed something quite pleasing for Irish fans. Notre Dame can score off the dribble.
Exhibited best by guys like Matt Farrell and Steve Vasturia, last night the Irish showed they can score on contested drives to the lane and pull-ups off the dribble, even if they were swatted a fair share by Louisville’s seven-footer Anas Mahmoud. Farrell remained fearless, contributing 22 points, eight of which came from the free-throw line. Bonzie Colson - who we already knew could dominate the paint - scored 18 and pulled down 14 rebounds, even with a seven-footer in the lane. There was another guy with big numbers; we’ll get to him next.
Despite only making five of their three-pointers, Notre Dame still put up 77 points on the Louisville defense. Part of this, obviously, was making 22 free throws. At the same time, Notre Dame held a 34-32 advantage in points in the paint, all while shooting 43 percent from the field. With only six assists.
In prior games, Notre Dame scored at a very good clip without consistently getting to the line. Now we know they can score a lot when the defensive takes away wide open threes, too. That patented Notre Dame offensive efficiency. This versatility should put opposing ACC coaches on notice.
Steve Vasturia is the Hero Notre Dame Needs
As stated, Colson and Farrell played beautifully against the Cards, much as they have all year. Martin Geben is coming around, and last night, Austin Torres gave quality minutes, doing a great job filling in for parts of Geben’s game that are still missing or questionable. TJ Gibbs has shown flashes of greatness in his young career, and continued to do so in limited minutes against the Cardinals. Rex Pfleuger continues to improve, and Matt Ryan has been... out there. The guy everyone thought would lead the team and be the hero this year - VJ Beachem - has all but disappeared.
Rather than focusing on Beachem’s issues (shooter against a defense that forces drives? Lack of confidence? Attitude? Has the game plan steered completely away from him? I guess he’s made some key defensive plays?), we’ll focus on the following. What we learned against Pitt, and what was cemented last night against Louisville, is that Steve Vasturia is Notre Dame’s hero. He’s the guy the Irish can go to late in the game with the game on the line.
He’s done it before. In 2015 against Duke in Purcell Pavilion comes to mind. He did it again against Pitt, from the corner, for three, to win the game just last weekend. Against Louisville, not only did Vasturia throw in a clutch runner to push the lead, but he also lead the team with 24 points on 9 of 15 shooting, hitting two threes and four free throws. His game has evolved. He’s not just a shooter and good defender anymore, like he was in years past for the Irish. He’s shown this year he can pump fake and drive, finish in traffic, finish on the fast break, throw in crazy runners to win games, all while still nailing clutch threes.
I still expect VJ Beachem to find himself. Coach Brey has a way of motivating guys, and VJ Beachem is a great player. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him emerge late in the season, when the pressure has lessened on him individually and his legs are back under him. For now, however, the Irish need look no further than Vasturia.
Staring Down the ACC Gauntlet
Rick Pitino and his Louisville squad will get their chance to exact revenge in early March in the KFC Yum! Center (if you don’t yell “KFC Yum!” every time you say it, you’re doing it wrong) to round out the regular season. Between this win and that rematch stands the rest of the ACC gauntlet for the Irish. Next up, the Irish get a tough Clemson squad at home, followed by a date with Miami in South Bend. After the home stand the Irish will travel to Blacksburg to take on the Virginia Tech Hokies, and turn around four days later back at home with a matchup against the 12th-ranked Florida State Seminoles. Games against Virginia, Duke and North Carolina all loom later in the season.
It’s still very early in the ACC schedule, but the Irish have shown they may just have what it takes to compete yet again this year.