No. 23 Notre Dame tops No. 9 Louisville, 77-70
Marek Mazurek | Friday, January 6, 2017
On paper, No. 23 Notre Dame upset No. 9 Louisville on Wednesday night, 77-70.
But you may have been hard-pressed to find even five people at Purcell Pavilion who thought the Irish were the underdogs.
Because, for what seems like the thousandth time in the last few years, a Mike Brey-coached team scrapped out a victory against a top-10 team at home.
Not an upset. Just business as usual.
And it all started with senior guard Steve Vasturia. He scored the dramatic final points of Notre Dame’s 78-77 win against Pittsburgh last Saturday and picked up right where he left off.
Vasturia drained the game’s opening basket — a 3-pointer — and shot 9-of-15 on his way to a career-high 24 points. Vasturia scored the game’s first basket, but he also sealed the win for the Irish with a steal and then a twisting layup in an 1-on-1 setup in the game’s closing minutes. Vasturia said the game-winning shot he hit against Pittsburgh gave him, and the whole team, the confidence to have a big night Wednesday.
“I think confidence-wise it’s huge,” Vasturia said. “Not just for me, for the team. We said in the huddle with three minutes left, two minutes left: we like being in these situations. We practice them and we have guys who will step up, and I think it’s even more evident when we make those big plays on the defensive end rather than the offensive end.”
With the win, Notre Dame and Florida State are the only two ACC teams sitting at 2-0 and Brey said he was “blessed” to have a perfect conference record thus far.
“When we went to Brooklyn to play in the Legends [Classic], I talked about, ‘a week to make a move.’ And we did,” Brey said. “ … We get the third one [against Clemson on Saturday], and we’ve made a heck of a move in early January.
“To get to 2-0 in this league, it feels like 6-0.”
Junior guard Matt Farrell kept up with Vasturia with 22 points of his own, including 8-of-9 free throws in 38 minutes of playing time. Farrell started the Irish scoring effort off with 13 points in the first half, with an unlikely 3-pointer as the shot clock expired on the game’s third possession and a couple of acrobatic layups.
“I think I have the best guards in the country,” Brey said.
The Irish role players also stepped up throughout the night. Junior forward Martinas Geben drew three charges and senior forward Austin Torres picked up six points, one steal and one block in just four minutes on the court.
The story of the opening half for the Cardinals was sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell, who racked up 16 points on 5-for-11 shooting. The Irish held Mitchell in check throughout the second half, though, and the guard picked up only four points in the game’s final half to finish with 20.
However, the player who failed to make an impact was also noteworthy for the Irish. Standout wing V.J. Beachem did not even attempt a shot in the first half, and he scored only six points against Pittsburgh on Saturday. Beachem tallied the first basket of the second half, but failed to score again in the game.
Instead, it was again Vasturia and Farrell who built a lead for Notre Dame in the second half’s first four minutes. Vasturia put in two fast-break buckets and Farrell knocked down another 3 to give the Irish a 51-42 lead out of the gate.
The lead soon shriveled, however, as a couple of Cardinal put-back buckets cut the Irish advantage to two at 53-51 with 12 minutes left to play.
But a quick succession of fouls on the Cardinals killed the momentum Louisville had, and a fast-break layup from Farrell again got the crowd on its feet as the Irish lead surged to six at eight minutes remaining.
Two minutes later, sophomore guard Rex Pflueger hit a 3-point shot from the right left corner to make it 64-60, as Brey mixed and matched his lineup with Pflueger, Torres and freshman guard T.J. Gibbs coming in off the bench at various points in the final 10 minutes. Though the Irish offense stalled at times in the final minutes of the contest — Notre Dame only made two field goals in the final nine minutes — Brey said he liked his team’s mental toughness on the defensive end.
“Every time they made it a one-possession game, we had a great offensive possession coupled with a defensive stop on the other end to give us a little bit of breathing room,” Brey said. “That’s kind of the personalities of the guys we have. We’ve been kind of a steady group to be around. That’s benefited us well in two league wins.”
But no combination of players could put the game out of reach for Notre Dame. At six minutes left, the Irish led 61-60. At 4:30, they led 68-64 and with 3:21 remaining, the score had not changed.
The Irish buckled down when it mattered, though, as they have all year at home. Notre Dame held Louisville to just eight points in the final five minutes of the game, and the Irish hit nine of 10 free throw attempts during that span to close out the 77-70 victory over the Cardinals.
“It’s hard to score on those dudes,” Brey said. “I thought we were mentally tough where, ‘Ok, we’re not flowing offensively, but can we go back and guard?’ A kill is three stops in a row, we’ve talked about that. We’ve done that now two games in a row where we’ve gotten kills against two ACC teams under four minutes and in the overtime on Saturday to win the game. Our defense kind of won the game for us.”
The defense. And Steve Vasturia.