Feb. 18, 2015
Offensive firepower has vaulted the University of Notre Dame men's basketball team into the top 10 this season.
Tuesday night, however, against Wake Forest it was defensive intensity that made sure the Irish stayed there, as the 10th-ranked Fighting Irish earned an 88-75 Atlantic Coast Conference victory at Purcell Pavilion.
Coach Mike Brey's Irish (23-4 overall, 11-3 in the ACC) now hit the road Saturday for a game at Boston College. Notre Dame returns home to play Tuesday against Syracuse. Wake Forest sliced a 10-point Notre Dame lead to five points, at 51-46, with 17:08 left in the second half.
That's when Irish point guard Demetrius Jackson turned up the heat, and his Fighting Irish teammates turned ACC ball into grand theft hoops.
With Wake Forest looking to slice into the five-point Irish lead even more, Jackson swiped the ball. The Irish cashed in when Bonzie Colson hit a jumper. Irish by seven.
Pressure by Jackson led to a steal and fast-break hoop by Jerian Grant. Irish by nine.
A few minutes later, Austin Torres darted into the passing lane to put the ball in Irish hands again. That led to two free throws by Grant. Irish by 16.
When a steal by Grant turned into a three-pointer by Steve Vasturia, Notre Dame owned a 19-point lead, at 70-51, with 11:43 left in the game.
Notre Dame's 19-5 run included nine points off turnovers. The Irish ended up outscoring Wake Forest 21-7 in points off turnovers.
"We can pressure the ball better with Jackson and Grant," Brey said. "When they have their energy, they can get up and pressure the ball and that does help. It starts with Demetrius. He's able to get up and get into people. Steve (Vasturia) does a real good job with that, too."
In a 13-point victory, a 14-point edge in points off turnovers is a difference-maker. Torres, a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward, had two steals and helped the Irish crank up the defensive intensity with a jolt of energy off the bench.
"That's one of the things we've been trying to focus on, our defense," Torres said. "We've been trying to get kills - three stops in a row. That definitely starts with the ball pressure with our guards, especially Demetrius Jackson, at the top of the key, when the point guard is bringing the ball up the floor.
"When Jerian is getting a turnover, he's always finding guys in transition, spotting up the three-point shooters or finding people running to the basket, and that's what gets our offense going."
Notre Dame has been lighting up the scoreboard this season, ranking 13th in the nation with an average of 79.2 points a game. The Irish are second in the nation with a shooting percentage of 51.5.
If the Irish maintain their offensive prowess, Torres said defense can help the Irish excel down the stretch.
"We are definitely making defense a mission for us," said Torres. "When we put up 80-plus points, we're not going to lose many games. It's on the defensive end to get the stops and get the defensive rebounds."
Jackson, a 6-foot-1 sophomore guard, had two steals, but he had a hand in the Irish ending up with 12 steals. Sacrificing personal glory, Jackson creates opportunities for others with his intense pressure at the point. The other Irish players attack the passing lanes and take advantage when Jackson detonates the pressure.
"It was a matter of getting up in guys, pressuring them, getting some turnovers and then converting on the other end that gave us a boost and a lift and got the crowd into it," Jackson said of the defense triggering the critical 19-5 run. "Our bench did a great job of bringing energy.
"When you can get easy baskets in transition, it definitely helps our team out. The better our defense is, the better our offense is. When we can get out in passing lanes and contest and make it difficult for them to run their offense, it helps the whole game for us."
Jackson said the key for the Irish in a recent seven-day stretch between games was rediscovering their defensive principles.
"During the break we went over some of the habits we established early in the season," Jackson said. "We had a reminder on those, to refresh on those habits. We did a better job tonight. We still have a lot of room for improvement on defense, but when guys are getting up and guarding their man, it makes everything so much better for our team."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent