Dec. 4, 2014
When the University of Notre Dame men's basketball team needed a critical stop with Michigan State leading by four points down the stretch, Austin Torres slapped the golden maple court at Purcell Pavilion, gleefully rubbed his hands and beamed in anticipation of the challenge.
Torres, who had only played 30 minutes in five previous games this season, turned in 19 minutes of blast-furnace intensity Wednesday night and helped the Fighting Irish pull off a statement victory, 79-78 in overtime against Michigan State in front of a roaring Purcell Pavilion crowd of 9,149 fans.
Next up for the Irish (7-1) is a game at 8 p.m. EST Saturday night against Fairleigh-Dickinson.
Torres finished with one basket, a huge put-back with 3:51 left in overtime to give the Irish a 71-69 lead. He had four rebounds, but his efforts neutralizing Michigan State's rebounding prowess made a significant impact.
When Torres checked in at the 15:36 mark of the second half, Michigan State owned a whopping 28-11 rebounding edge on the Irish. Matching the Spartan fierceness on the boards, Torres helped the Irish muscle inside and tough out the bruising rebounding battles.
Michigan State ended up outrebounding Notre Dame 43-26--but with Torres on the court in the second half the Irish outrebounded the Spartans 14-10. In the crucial overtime period, Notre Dame outrebounded Michigan State 7-3, with Torres grabbing three of the Irish rebounds. Notre Dame outscored Michigan State 6-4 in second-chance points thanks to the rebounding edge impacted by Torres.
Spartan dominator Branden Dawson wounded Notre Dame with 18 rebounds, including nine offensive boards. Torres helped the Irish limited Dawson to five rebounds - and only one offensive board - in the final 15:36 of the second half and the five minutes of overtime.
Irish head coach Mike Brey said Torres was fabulous against the Spartans, a program that has a reputation for being brawlers on the boards.
"That's the way he's been practicing," Brey said of Torres' efforts. "He gives us that athletic front-line guy. We've been talking about him for about 10 days now since we came back from the Hall of Fame Tip Off Tournament. One of the things we said was, `We should've put him on (Providence forward LaDontae) Henton when he was crushing us (for 38 points).' So we got him over with a white shirt a little bit.
"The thing is, he understands his role: do the dirty work, screen and rebound. He gave us a physical presence on Branden Dawson. Dawson is a fabulous player and athletic. He was the one guy that could give a physical presence on Dawson. That really helped us."
Torres said he embraces the role of being a role player and grinding out the tough jobs on a basketball court.
"It's one of the things I love to do, making sure I block people out and get rebounds," Torres said. "(Dawson) got a couple of rebounds on me early. I had to realize how strong he actually was. I had to use a little more strength.
"You have to act like he has zero rebounds," Torres said of keeping Dawson from continuing to dominate the boards. "You have to make sure you keep him off the glass. He's a great player. He's going to do great things in the Big Ten this year. He's one of the most athletic guys in the Big Ten, in my opinion. You have to make sure you check him and you know his tendencies."
Irish captain Pat Connaughton said Torres gave the Irish a huge boost of energy--and his efforts on the boards and in screening on offense were critical.
"It says a lot about his character, it says a lot about his toughness, it says a lot about his heart," Connaughton said of what Torres did in slugging it out with the Spartans on the boards. "The heart he played with showed under the bright lights, and it showed on a national level. We need guys like (Austin). It's easy to play with guys like that, because they bring the energy. You just have to channel the energy to where it needs to be channeled."
Connaughton said Torres, who was a star at nearby Penn High School, has a burning desire to contribute to his hometown college team.
"You can see it in his eyes, you can see it off the court," Connaughton said of the way Torres loves Notre Dame. "He really cares about this team and about the success of the team. The biggest credit to him is that he didn't get as much of a shot in previous games, but he was ready when his number was called."
Torres said helping the Irish win a statement game was a special moment for him.
"It's a great feeling," Torres said. "I'm happy for the team. I'm happy for Coach Brey. I felt like he was stressed all week talking about this game. We really wanted to get his one for him and for our team."
What Brey loves is he fact Torres understands his role for the Irish.
"He isn't going to be taking any three-point shots in practice tomorrow, I can tell you that much," Brey said with a laugh about Torres' role. "He's going to do the same thing every day: screen, rebound and do the dirty work. But he understands that. That's the role we talked about in Italy. We talked about, `That's all I need you to do.' And I talked about it in maybe a three-minute spurt.
"Tonight, we needed him. He ball-screened great tonight for Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson to kind of screen them to get in there to make a play. It's a big night for him because he kind of solidifies himself in our rotation now."
Torres said he was never tentative or hesitant about supplying intensity on the boards, on defense, and setting screens to open up teammates.
"It's definitely a mentality," Torres said of coming off the bench with a fiery demeanor.
"Doing what coach tells you to do, do my role, those are the things that are going to keep me and everybody else on the floor. Everybody has their own role. We have to make sure we do what we have to do, and this team is going to do great things. I was definitely ready for this moment."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent