Nov. 23, 2016
By John Heisler
The dulcet tones of Frank Sinatra and “New York, New York” rang out once all the shouting was over Tuesday night at the Barclays Center.
And Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey made it clear Brooklyn qualified as his borough of choice after his team’s fourth straight victory there in a nine-month period.
But maybe the most appropriate tune Tuesday would have been something from Frankie Valli or the Four Seasons, in particular from their long-running Broadway hit “Jersey Boys.”
Because it was Brey’s New Jersey products—junior point guard Matt Farrell (from Bridgewater) and senior wing Steve Vasturia (from Medford)—who did the most effective late-game pre-Thanksgiving carving in Notre Dame’s comeback 70-66 win over Northwestern in the championship game of the Legends Classic.
Those two both finished with 18 points to lead all scorers—and it was Vasturia who tracked down the errant Wildcat inbounds pass in the final 20 seconds, then Farrell who flipped in a gutty shot on a drive down the lane. Farrell’s accompanying free throw with 14 seconds left put the still unbeaten Irish back in front by two after they’d trailed by six with six minutes to go.
Notre Dame assistant coach Ryan Humphrey authored the scouting report on Northwestern—and he assuredly had a few inside clues given his status as a member of Chris Collins’ staff in Evanston the previous two seasons.
Humphrey had scrawled his defensive keys on the locker room white board – communicate in transition, be unselfish defensively, have good defensive patience and “one and done.” On the offensive end, Humphrey and the Irish coaches stressed ball reversals and movement, valuing the basketball and attacking Northwestern on the glass.
Yet maybe what Brey understood as well as anyone was that if the Irish had an edge coming in, it came in the experience category. There simply were more Notre Dame players with resumes that included plenty of tight (and successful) late-game situations, and maybe the Wildcats--still without an NCAA Championship appearance in their history—had fewer of those and were still finding their way.
The fact that Humphrey (wearing a green checked tie, as opposed to purple) had come from Northwestern wasn’t lost on the Irish players—and it had to be emotional for the former Irish player when he walked onto the Barclays Center floor with 15 minutes until tipoff and greeted his former associates.
Both teams shot it well early, Notre Dame knocking down five of its first seven shots (and 10 of 16) and Northwestern doing the same to the tune of six of eight.
From a tie at 14, the Irish scored nine straight points, holding Northwestern off the board for 5:20. In the first 10 minutes, Vasturia, Farrell, Bonzie Colson (he finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds) and Matt Ryan all hit a three. The largest Irish lead in the first 20 minutes came at 32-21—but the ‘Cats cut it to three in the final two minutes before Farrell’s three free throws at :40 gave Notre Dame a 40-34 edge at the break.
Northwestern held a 16-10 edge on the boards, but the Irish had knocked down seven more free throws. Amazingly, the only Irish players with individual rebounds at intermission were Vasturia (with six) and Colson (three).
“Everybody on that backboard,” Brey told his players at the half. “When we get the ball out we’ve done a great job attacking. When we can guard our guy on the perimeter our big guys don’t have to help out and then they can block out. That’s when we have our surges.”
It took less than two minutes for the Irish to build the advantage to 12—after consecutive threes by Vasturia. But Notre Dame missed 13 of its first 18 shots after the break, and by the 12:33 mark Northwestern had cut the margin to four points (55-51). The ‘Cats finally tied it at 58 (with 8:33 to go) and then threes by Nathan Taphorn (he hit three second-half triples) at 6:44 and Bryant McIntosh at 6:16 (one of his few bright moments on a three-for 18 shooting evening) had the Northwestern fans on their feet in thanks for a 64-58 lead.
But that’s when the Irish defensively went to work. Northwestern scored only a single basket the rest of the way.
Notre Dame wasted no time cutting into the deficit, with Vasturia and then Colson notching inside looks to make it a two-point game. Then Brey’s crew emphatically regained the lead on a nifty-alley-oop from Farrell to V.J. Beachem whose dunk at 3:12 made it 65-64 for the Irish.
McIntosh connected on what Northwestern fans thought was the biggest play of the night with his leaner in the lane with 39 ticks on the clock, giving the Wildcats a one-point lead. And when Vasturia couldn’t connect from the baseline and Northwestern rebounded, the ‘Cats had the lead and the ball.
That’s where it all went the wrong direction for Northwestern. Taphorn fired the inbounds pass out near midcourt where Vasturia tracked it down. Vasturia got it to Farrell who drove past Vic Law, drew the foul and somehow got the layup to go in over Taphorn at :14.7. Farrell’s three-point play made it a two-point game, and when Northwestern missed at the other end and Farrell rebounded, his final two free throws at :03.6 accounted for the 70-66 final.
The ‘Cats finished with 15 turnovers—and the last of those proved ever so costly. Meanwhile, Notre Dame committed only six miscues, just two in the second half.
Farrell deservingly earned tournament MVP honors, and Vasturia gained a spot on the all-tourney team. And Irish opponents—who generally have expected to have to deal with the potent trio of Vasturia, Beachem and Colson—now know that the ultra-confident Farrell qualifies as a pretty tough customer as well. “He’s a warrior,” praised Brey as he walked off the court.
The Irish plopped the Legends Classic trophy on the floor right in the middle of the locker room (the same locker room Notre Dame used Monday night as well as in its two NCAA wins last March) and the party was on.
“I couldn’t be prouder,” said Brey. “I know our last two teams went to the (NCAA) Elite Eight, but they did not win a tournament in November and they did not fight back from anything like this. You know what was great? We just believed. How you guys talked in the timeout when we were down six—let’s dig in and guard. We’ve got great physical and mental toughness. We kind of broke their spirit and we’re going to be in a lot of games like this, so that’s a great trait to have. We are much more mentally tough and we believe because of the nucleus we have in this room that has been in these situations before. When we had to defend, we really defended and we were poised. I love it.
“I’m so excited for the identity of this group. We love (Pat) Connaughton and (Jerian) Grant and (Demetrius) Jackson and (Zach) Auguste, but these are our guys now. What a great thing to say you are champs and look at that thing (the trophy)—that should be a big confidence-builder for us.”
When Law spoke to the media he mentioned the Notre Dame culture—and Brey couldn’t have agreed more.
Noting the Irish late-game success, Collins (who was recruited to play at Duke by Brey) said, “We hung on and had a one-point lead with the ball with 20 seconds. I take responsibility—I should have called a timeout and gotten us organized.
“This has to hurt. But that’s where Notre Dame’s experience comes in and that’s what we’re trying to get. You have to admire guys like Vasturia and Beachem and Colson--those are guys that have played on teams that have gone to the Elite Eight.
“They’ve played in NCAA tournament games in this building. They know how to win. We came up one play short.”
Brey noted that beating Colorado from the Pacific-12 and Northwestern from the Big Ten qualify as (NCAA) resume wins. And he’s hoping he can stir up the Barclays ghosts again in March when the Irish return to Brooklyn for the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
“I don’t want to over-analyze it,” noted Brey, who suggested Farrell was playing a little like former Duke guard Bobby Hurley, another New Jersey product.
Traffic issues slowed the Irish team bus down in Manhattan, and the Notre Dame charter fight didn’t touch down in South Bend until 2:30 a.m.
But no one was complaining.
Austin Torres hugged the championship trophy as he exited the plane—and Brey could only smile.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been following the Notre Dame sports scene since 1978.