Carson: V.J. Beachem once again Notre Dame’s key in March
Alex Carson | Friday, March 25, 2016
PHILADELPHIA — What is there left to say at this point?
Friday’s story was easy, right? Junior guard Demetrius Jackson, the best player in the game, stepped up as the clock wound down and sent Notre Dame to the Elite Eight. Right?
I beg to differ.
Sure, Jackson’s final-second heroics were key. There’s no doubting that.
But if junior forward V.J. Beachem hadn’t turned in yet another stellar performance during the second half Friday, there wouldn’t have been a comeback.
You see, when the dust settles on this Notre Dame tournament run — no matter how far it goes — the focus is going to be on the dramatic plays. Irish fans will fondly remember freshman guard Rex Pflueger’s tip-in with 1.5 seconds to top Stephen F. Austin and they’ll surely remember Jackson’s two steals and six points in the final 20 seconds Friday to turn a three-point deficit into a five-point win over Wisconsin.
And that’s fine, because in sports, we love the dramatic. It’s what we live for.
But the underlying work that ensures the “destiny” angle often goes overlooked. For Notre Dame these last two weeks, that’s been Beachem.
Before Pflueger won it on a tip-in, Beachem dropped 15 against Stephen F. Austin. And without his perfect-from-the-floor, 18-point performance two days earlier against Michigan, none of the dramatic ever would have happened.
In statistics, we talk about regressing to the mean — while players like Beachem might turn in great performances for a couple of games, we eventually expect a return to their normal states.
For Beachem, that’s a solid, role-player spot where he’s the fourth or fifth option on the floor the majority of the time for Notre Dame.
And during the first half, that’s what he was. Beachem was just 1-for-4 from the floor — an early 3-pointer his only contribution — and added a couple of steals for good measure. Nothing spectacular, and not much to know he was there.
But when Jackson, senior forward Zach Auguste and junior guard Steve Vasturia were struggling to do much of anything — no matter how easy the look was — that responsibility to step up fell to Beachem.
The Fort Wayne, Indiana, native responded, rattling off 16 second-half points on a 6-for-7 shooting performance to keep the Irish neck-and-neck with the Badgers.
When the Irish needed someone to settle the nerves after giving up a bucket on Wisconsin’s first possession of the half, it was Beachem who hit a mid-range jumper.
When Wisconsin opened up an eight-point lead shortly thereafter, Notre Dame rattled off an 8-0 run with four Beachem points right in the middle of it.
When the Badgers led by five with three minutes to play, it was Beachem who knocked down a clutch 3-pointer to keep the game within reach.
And when Notre Dame had to make that soon-to-be-famous steal stick, it was Beachem who came up with the most important defensive rebound of his career, took the foul and sunk two pressure free throws with 6.8 seconds left to widen the Irish advantage to 59-56.
“I was just trying to knock down open shots,” Beachem said. “My teammates were finding me and, you know, even a couple times I had to create for myself and use the dribble.”
But the story doesn’t end there. Think back to a year ago about the defining moments of Notre Dame’s NCAA tournament run and you won’t see one guy there: Beachem.
In four games last March, Beachem played just 19 minutes, scored just four points and never looked comfortable on the stage.
What a change 12 months have made.
“I’ve been praying a lot on it. I just wanted to redeem myself from last year,” Beachem said. “I felt like I let the guys down, I let myself down and [I’m] just blessed to have the opportunity again.”
He’s taken that opportunity and been the unsung hero in leading Notre Dame to the Elite Eight.
After Friday’s win, Irish head coach Mike Brey made a bold claim: “No one in this tournament is playing better than V.J. Beachem,” he said.
And right now, it’s hard to argue with him.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.