Jan. 8, 2017
By John Heisler
Maybe the Irish felt a little fat and sassy after a nifty home win Wednesday over ninth-rated Louisville.
Maybe the mere mention of Clemson conjured up more thoughts of the Tigers’ appearance in the College Football Playoff title game Monday as opposed to basketball.
Maybe the fact that Clemson has never beaten Notre Dame in men’s basketball (albeit only five all-time games now) suggested the Irish would find a way to win on a cold South Bend Saturday afternoon in front of a packed house at Purcell Pavilion.
“Don’t let ‘em think they can win here,” Irish coach Mike Brey told his team before the game. “All of these guys are capable three-point shooters, but they’re good basketball players and they can put it on the floor. We know (6-7 senior Jaron) Blossomgame (the leading Tiger scorer) is going to get his, but we can’t let another guy go off on us.”
Leave it to Brey—after all his years as a Duke assistant, not to mention Notre Dame’s three-plus years in the league--to understand how cold and cruel life sometimes can be in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
And, so, maybe for all those reasons and more, Brey couldn’t have been totally surprised when Blossomgame gave the visitors a lead 18 seconds in—and when the Irish committed a shot clock violation on their very first possession, then turned it over again, translating to another Clemson hoop.
Brey finally called a timeout when it was 8-0, with Clemson having hit four of its five shots and the Irish coming up empty on their three. It got worse at 10-0—and Blossomgame already had six points (connecting on three of his four attempts).
The Irish lead the ACC in three-point goals, so it hardly qualified as a surprise when V.J. Beachem, Matt Farrell, Rex Pflueger off the bench and Beachem (again) knocked down long-distance bombs to put Notre Dame on top 14-12. Clemson had to call its own timeout after missing six of seven shots and not connecting from the field for four minutes.
But even a 17-2 run by the home team proved too good to be true. Clemson reserve guard Gabe DeVoe came off the bench to nail four first-half three-pointers (most in his career)—three in a 106-second span—and Clemson fought back to lead again by as many as nine (36-27).
Clemson didn’t attempt a free throw in the opening 20 minutes, the Tigers committed only five team fouls (Notre Dame went 15 minutes without attempting a free throw—and the Irish lead the country in free-throw percentage) and held a 19-11 rebounding edge at the break despite coming into the contest ranked last in the ACC in defensive rebounding.
The Irish gave up 40 points in the first half on their home floor and allowed Clemson to shoot at a 53 percent clip.
The home team locker room at intermission was not a pleasant scene.
The first five minutes of the second half featured three more three-pointers by Beachem and two more from Farrell—and by then both teams had to figure this one would go down to the wire.
After Clemson led 49-46 at 13:25 neither team led by more than a bucket until the final seconds. There were ties at 53, 55, 58, 60, 62, 64 and 70.
The Irish did not commit a second-half turnover until a five-second inbounding violation at the 10:17 stoppage—and Clemson didn’t commit a second-half foul until the 8:04 mark.
There was no shortage on nail-biting possessions down the stretch—and no shortage of must-have scores by both teams to keep pace.
Farrell’s three at 2:37 brought the Irish from behind (after Bonzie Colson’s attempt had been blocked).
Then Farrell made maybe the play of the day at 1:45 when—on an out-of-bounds play from under the Irish basket—he found Steve Vasturia (capping a cooler-than-usual six-for15 shooting effort) for a three from the left corner to put the Irish up by a deuce.
Yet another Saturday. Yet another big shot by Vasturia.
“He is one of the best players in the history of our program,” said Brey after the game.
Pflueger assisted on a critical Colson hoop with a minute to go—and, after the Irish forced a three-point miss by DeVoe, Farrell cinched it as the shot clock wound down with his fourth three of the day with nine seconds remaining.
Three games in eight days.
Three league wins by a combined 13 points.
If Irish fans had worried about Beachem—who had struggled with eight combined points and four-of-13 shooting in his previous two outings—that proved unnecessary. The senior wing tied his career high with 22 points, connecting on six of 10 from long distance.
As Brey noted, if not for Beachem’s first half, the 21st-rated Irish (now 14-2) might have trailed by 25.
Blossomgame indeed got his 22 points and DeVoe finished with 14. No other Clemson player reached double figures.
“A (defensive) kill to win the game today,” Brey told his squad. “We know how to finish and we know how to take people’s hearts. Fabulous job by guys off the bench giving us good stuff. I thought we were in a great offensive rhythm. V.J. Beachem, thank you, baby. We never panic about V.J.
“What a great read (by Farrell) on the out of bounds under. That shows our basketball IQ—that really broke their backs.
“We have had three physically and emotionally demanding wins. We’ve put ourselves in a great position.
“Now we go into road dog mode. I’m excited to go on the road with these guys because they are winners.”
The Irish have a lot of weapons. They lead the country in free-throw shooting percentage (on pace to break the all-time NCAA season record set by Harvard in 1984) and they share the wealth and take care of the basketball as well as any team in the nation.
Yet there’s no rest for the wicked - with three straight away-from-home assignments on the docket at Miami (Thursday), then at ranked teams from Virginia Tech and Florida State (the only other team currently unbeaten in ACC play).
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been chronicling Notre Dame athletics since 1978.