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Men’s Basketball

Notre Dame does the little things in come-from-behind win

| Monday, February 8, 2016

Irish junior guard Steve Vasturia looks to inbound the ball during Notre Dame’s 80-76 win over No. 2 North Carolina on Saturday night at Purcell Pavilion.Emmet Farnan | The Observer

Irish junior guard Steve Vasturia looks to inbound the ball during Notre Dame’s 80-76 win over No. 2 North Carolina on Saturday night at Purcell Pavilion.

It’s one of the oldest clichés in sports: “Take care of the little things.” But the saying rang true Saturday night, when the little things piled up to give Notre Dame another big-time, home win as the Irish squeaked by No. 2 North Carolina, 80-76, in front of a sellout crowd at Purcell Pavilion.

Although the ending was storybook for Notre Dame, most of the game was anything but as the Irish (16-7, 7-4 ACC) trailed by 15 at one point in the first half and scratched their way back to a nine-point deficit at halftime.

But just as head coach Mike Brey’s squads have done so often in the past, the Irish found a way to pull out a home win against a top-ranked opponent. On Saturday, that victory came on the back of 20 offensive rebounds, sheer grit and 38 free throws.

“I’m really proud of our toughness,” Brey said. “I thought our toughness really showed in the second half. … I thought we really dug in and made some great stands. We were a flat-out mess offensively in the first half. I thought a lot of that is because Carolina was playing great defense. We really got into a good offensive rhythm in the second half and we wanted to keep driving the ball, and getting to the foul line certainly was a key to winning the game.”

“Flat-out mess” is certainly one way to describe Notre Dame’s first-half offense. The Irish shot just 28.1 percent in the game’s first 20 minutes, going 0-for-5 on 3-point shots. By contrast, the Tar Heels shot 48 percent, and senior guard Marcus Paige, who had been in a shooting slump, found his rhythm to the tune of 4-of-5 from 3-point range.

While North Carolina kept racking up 3-pointers, it also kept racking up fouls, including five in the first four minutes of the second half. The Tar Heel foul trouble continued throughout the game, and the Irish reaped the rewards by getting to the free-throw line 38 times.

Notre Dame made 31 of its 38 attempts, and the 31 dead-ball points were enough to give the Irish a chance. 

Junior guard Demetrius Jackson was 9-of-9 from the line, sophomore forward Bonzie Colson was 5-of-5, freshman guard Rex Pflueger was 4-for-4, and junior guard Steve Vasturia was 4-for-5. Without senior forward Zach Auguste, who went 5-for-11, the team had a combined total of 26-for-27.

Prolific free-throw shooting is not something the Irish are known for, Jackson said.

“We even did a decent job from the free-throw line,” Jackson said. “We were attacking downhill — we shot 38 free throws so that’s really big for us because we’ve been struggling to get to the line, so we were just struggling, going for it.”

In addition to the 31 points from the charity stripe, the Irish comeback was fueled by a renewed defensive energy in the second half. The Irish defense forced 13 North Carolina turnovers and only gave up the ball twice by comparison. The Tar Heel shooting percentage also dropped to 42.9 percent in the second half.

On the offensive glass, Colson stood out, snagging four key offensive boards in the final seven minutes of the game to preserve the Irish lead.

Colson credited his strong second-half performance to inspiration he received from his teammates during halftime.

“In the locker room, my teammates just talking to me saying, ‘You gotta bring that, gotta bring that juice, that edge,’” Colson said. “I knew I had to do that in the second half. It was a great win for us we needed this. … You can’t give up on the play, when you crash and rebound you can see where the ball’s going to land and you have to get the loose balls, you have to get the tips, you have to do all the little things to help you win.”

Pflueger factored large at key moments of the game as well, including a defensive rebound and a steal in the final 1:30 of the game. Pflueger was also tasked with guarding Paige for most of the second half and held the standout guard to only nine points on 3-of-7 shooting.

I guard a possible lottery pick every single day in Demetrius Jackson,” Pflueger said. “Both [Jackson and Paige] are great guards, and coming into playing against Marcus Paige, I knew I just had to chase him around make sure every shot’s a tough shot and make sure he misses really.”

A year ago, the Irish beat the Tar Heels twice. But that was with Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton.

Without them, doing the little things has become all the more important.

Just ask North Carolina.

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About Marek Mazurek

Marek is a senior history major and is a former resident of Carroll Hall. He has lived in Mishawaka or South Bend for all 21 years of his life and covers Notre Dame football and men's basketball. He has loads of hand-eye coordination but lacks the height to be any good. Marek is also a proud esports supporter.

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