V.J. Beachem leads Notre Dame past Michigan in first round
Alex Carson | Saturday, March 19, 2016
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Winning time.
With the game tied at 59-59 in the final four minutes, the question was simple: Who would step up? Would he be from No. 11-seeded Michigan or No. 6-seeded Notre Dame?
The answer came by way of junior forward V.J. Beachem, who hit a 3-pointer and followed it with another bucket to put the Irish (22-11, 11-7 ACC) ahead 64-59. They would never trail from there in a 70-63 win Friday night in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The five points were the final of the night for Beachem, who led all scorers with 18 points on a perfect 7-for-7 night from the field.
“All of them were open shots, so we just had great movement, and the guys found me when I was open,” Beachem said. “I was just able to step up and knock them down.”
The Wolverines (23-13, 10-8 Big Ten) answered to close the Irish lead to 64-61 and again to cut it to 66-63, but it was Notre Dame’s defense that stepped up, forcing a 3-point miss from Wolverines junior guard/forward Zak Irvin in the closing seconds that secured the Irish win.
But the story of Notre Dame’s win Friday started long before the final four minutes — and it was a story so familiar to this Irish team.
Just as it has before in the first half of a big game, Notre Dame fell behind by double digits: Michigan led 26-13 with 9:00 left in the half, and once the Irish closed to 34-29 with 96 seconds remaining, the Wolverines blew it back out to a 12-point halftime advantage with a 7-0 run.
That prompted a spirited halftime speech from Irish head coach Mike Brey.
“[The] conversation started nice and calm, and then I just started to lose it a little bit,” Brey said. “As far as, ‘I love you. You’re great guys, you have done everything we’ve asked, but either you’re gonna be a little tougher or this is gonna be another North Carolina game all over again. But everyone’ll pat you on the back because you’re nice guys and you get good grades.’”
Notre Dame needed something — anything — to show it had life coming out of the break. Junior Steve Vasturia stepped up and provided that: He got to the hole for the first points of the half, nearly forced a turnover, then hit a 3-pointer on the next trip down to get the Irish going.
“I was just trying to bring some energy,” Vasturia said. “I think we might’ve needed a jump start … everybody was really feeding off of each other, and you saw that throughout the second half.”
“Steve Vasturia responded right away,” Beachem said. “His voice and just attacking and playing as hard as he did. Those first four, five minutes was huge for us and really helped us turn the tide.”
When sophomore guard Matt Farrell, who made his first start Friday, buried a 3 of his own, the Wolverines’ lead was trimmed to four. The game never got away from the Irish the rest of the way.
Freshman forward Matt Ryan hit from deep to tie the game, 48-48, six minutes later before Beachem drained a 3-pointer to give Notre Dame its first lead at 51-48.
Michigan hit back-to-back 3-pointers to go ahead 54-51, setting up a series of back-and-forth basketball that led to the tie at 59-59.
But what got Notre Dame going wasn’t its offense in the second half — the Irish actually shot a worse percentage from the field after the break than before it — but rather its defense. Where Michigan dropped 41 in the first half, it only managed 22 points in the second, starting 3-of-17 from the field.
“Everyone was communicating with each other, our switching was better, our overall on-ball defense was better,” freshman guard Rex Pflueger said. “And I think the intensity that Coach installed in us at halftime really pushed us forward.”
From there, with the game on the line, Beachem delivered — and credited the assist to junior guard Demetrius Jackson.
“Demetrius found me and I had my feet set, and I was just able to knock it down,” Beachem said. “But it was really our movement. We got the ball screen and [senior forward Zach Auguste] rolled so hard that my man had to help and Demetrius found me.”
Sophomore forward Bonzie Colson had four late points, including the free throws that sealed the deal, and Pflueger finished off the score with two free throws with :00.1 left on the clock.
“That was a fabulous college basketball game,” Brey said. “It was an honor to be part of it. Two teams going at it, throwing big punches. I’m certainly very proud of our group and the second half that we played, especially defensively.”
Notre Dame advances to the second round of NCAA tournament play for the second year running and has a favorable matchup Sunday: No. 14-seeded Stephen F. Austin took out West Virginia, the No. 3 seed, in Friday night’s first game.