Jan. 5, 2017
By John Heisler
Purcell Pavilion—even dating back to its days as the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center-- continued as the Louisville Cardinals’ own personal little shop of horrors again Wednesday night.
That’s because Notre Dame veterans Steve Vasturia, Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell all did their things in appropriate fashion to carve out a 77-70 victory for the 21st-rated Irish over the ninth-ranked Cards.
What did that mean?
It left Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino with a 2-8 lifetime record in South Bend, including a current six-game losing streak during his Louisville tenure.
Pitino’s only success stories in South Bend came in 1993 and 1995 when he brought Kentucky teams ranked second and third, respectively, to Notre Dame and won.
The Cardinals have not prevailed in South Bend since 1994 when Denny Crum and John MacLeod sat on opposite benches.
This one wasn’t easy—in particular because it came against a Louisville team that knocked off fifth-ranked Kentucky and then 10 days later disposed of 16th-ranked Indiana Saturday in Indianapolis.
The Irish qualified as the fourth consecutive ranked opponent faced by Pitino’s squad—and the Notre Dame win left Mike Brey’s unit at 2-0 in early Atlantic Coast Conference play, with Louisville at 0-2.
Here’s how it played out:
Brey was convinced his Irish had a solid chance to prevail if they could play smart, force Louisville to work against Notre Dame’s half-court defensive sets and somehow win the war on the boards.
“Blocking out these bodies is really a key,” he told his team a half-hour before the game. “We outrebound them, we win the game.”
Then he said it again for emphasis.
“We put outrebound them, we win the game.
“It’s going to be harder to score tonight, so we can’t have any defeatist body language if we miss a shot or they get a deflection. If it’s an ugly game and we win it, we’ll take it.”
On an 18-degree night with most of the Notre Dame students home enjoying the tale end of holiday break, the Irish broke impressively to leads of 8-2 and 17-7, as the visitors went nearly three minutes without a field goal.
Louisville connected on four straight shots to fuel a 13-2 run to claim advantages of 26-25 and 28-27. But a Vasturia layup and then his three made it 34-28 for the Irish—and Farrell’s two free throws with eight seconds left finished it at 42-37 for Notre Dame at the break.
The Irish proved Brey’s point—holding a 20-15 rebounding edge, including eight offensive rebounds, at intermission—with the trio of Vasturia, Colson and Farrell combining for all but six of Notre Dame’s points.
“They’re having a hard time guarding us and we’ve got to continue to rebound. We’ve got to continue to rebound,” Brey told his charges at half. “We’ve got to make them two-point shooters.”
Louisville missed five straight shots and Notre Dame scored six straight points (making four consecutive shots of its own) to build leads of 51-42 and 53-44 before the Cards went on a 7-0 run.
Pitino’s crew hung tough and forged a tie at 68. And the Irish, amazingly, after Rex Pflueger’s three-pointer at 6:12 made it 64-60 for Notre Dame, went nearly six minutes without a field goal. Vasturia finally transitioned a steal at one end into a drive into the paint and a bucket with 19 seconds remaining that made it 73-68 and effectively closed the final door on the Cards.
As Pitino noted accurately after the game, any team entering a free-throw contest with the Irish (ranked number one in the country in that category coming into the game) is likely to lose. Notre Dame went 15 of 16 from the line over the final 20 minutes (11 of 12 over the last 5:26), 22 of 25 for the full game.
The Irish survived despite missing six of their last seven field-goal tries and seven of their final nine. Louisville’s last bucket came at the 2:39 mark to pull it within a point.
The last five Louisville teams that Pitino has brought to South Bend have been ranked fifth (2009), 15th (2011), 11th (2013), 13th(2016) and ninth (2017), respectively. Notre Dame has beaten all of them.
Brey kidded his players after the game, telling them that after Notre Dame’s one-point win at Pittsburgh on New Year’s Eve afternoon, he kept his son Kyle up until three in the morning talking Irish basketball—and that that might well happen again after Wednesday night’s result. For now, he loves his team’s basketball IQ and its mental and physical toughness.
Irish fans might consider stopping by Brey’s office for more morning-after inspections and hope bleary eyes dominate the scene.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has chronicled the Irish sports scene since 1978.