Dec. 3, 2015

By John Heisler

On an evening in Champaign, Illinois, in which the old intersected absolutely comfortably with the new, the Notre Dame men’s basketball team spoiled the debut of Illinois’ spanking new arena (actually a $170 million refurbishment) and its tribute to longtime Illini coach Lou Henson.

Mike Brey’s group did that by making hugely effective use of a second-half 2-3 zone defense-and that made all the difference in the world in allowing the Irish to overcome a 10-point deficit to lead by as many as 14 points late before cruising to an 84-79 victory Wednesday night over the Illini in the Atlantic Coast Conference/Big Ten Challenge at State Farm Center (formerly Assembly Hall).

Here was the old:

— A re-enactment of what used to be a major Midwest rivalry: These two teams played 16 times between 1957 and 1973 in those old Chicago Stadium Friday night doubleheaders or tripleheaders (the Irish won only five of those 18 meetings).

Notre Dame hadn’t met the Illini in Champaign since 1954-and the Irish had won only once previously in Champaign and that was way back in 1926 (the score was 26-14).

In fact, the two teams had not played a regular-season contest since 1973.

— Henson, a recent inductee into the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City. He coached Illinois for 21 seasons, won 423 games with the Illini and took them to the 1984 NCAA Final Four. About 100 former players, coaches and student managers returned for the halftime ceremonies that noted the dedication of Lou Henson Court. Henson wore his trademark orange sport coat (as did current Illinois coach John Groce in his honor)-and student Orange Krush section members wore orange T-shirts showing ties and white shirts to honor their former coach who created that group.

— What used to be known as Assembly Hall (with massive improvements ongoing, including all new seating), which originally opened in 1963.

— Veteran official Ted Valentine, who worked the game Wednesday night -and presumably worked dozens more Illini contests during Henson’s time.

Here was the new:

— The State Farm Center, which played host to its first game since the reworking-after the Illini played their first four “home games” in 2015 in Springfield, Illinois.

— The newfound 2-3 zone defense on which the Irish relied throughout the second half. It’s been in the Notre Dame arsenal, but assistant coach Martin Ingelsby suggested the Irish used it for all of nine possessions on its recent three-game trip to Orlando, Florida. “We’ve practiced it a lot more than we’ve played it,” said Ingelsby.

— Notre Dame’s first exposure in 2015 to a challenging road environment-on a night when the home team pulled out all the stops in debuting its new digs, including pregame pyrotechnics, for good measure, as the Illini took the floor.

As much as Brey was concerned about preventing transition baskets and his Irish holding their own in the rebounding battles, as he said to his team pregame, “We need poise for 40 minutes. I can’t wait for us to get into this. This will be one of the toughest atmospheres we play in. Have fun doing this. Pump each other up-we’ve got nothing to lose.”

This may not have qualified as the shiniest of the ACC/Big Ten matchups, considering the injury-plagued Illini already had dropped contests to North Florida, Providence, Chattanooga and Iowa State. And Illinois badly needed a feel-good moment after a complicated fall in which the school lost both its football coach and athletics director. But that meant little to Brey and the Irish who needed their own boost of confidence after dropping a two-point decision to Monmouth and another by a single point to Alabama in the AdvoCare Invitational over the Thanksgiving holiday in Orlando.

Notre Dame scored the first five points, only to see a handful of Irish turnovers assist Illinois in a 13-2 run, including 10 straight points over one span. A Zach Auguste layup at the 13:10 mark ended a Notre Dame drought of more than four minutes. Then Steve Vasturia’s layup gave the lead back to Notre Dame at 24-23 at the 8:02 juncture, with the Irish connecting on four of their last five shots (and the same for Vasturia to that point). But the visitors managed only a single bucket in the final 5:15 (missing nine of their final 11 shots).

Illinois committed only one first-half turnover, and Demetrius Jackson (who might well have opted to attend Illinois if he hadn’t come to Notre Dame) had a quiet first half (one-for-five shooting, one rebound, one assist). The Illini led 41-33 at the break, and five of their players had connected from three-point range.

“There are going to be so many swings in this half,” Brey told his team at halftime. To win this thing we’ve got to get our chests out and get some rebounds. Don’t let the energy in the building slow us down.”

And after the Illini received first-half scoring contributions from nine different players (including 14 points off the bench), Brey opted to try something new on the defensive end after a first half that featured a man-to-man approach.

As Brey told the media later, his team’s first-half defense simply wasn’t good enough (50 percent field-goal shooting for the Illini)-so the Irish switched it up. And, boy, did the zone pay dividends.

“We were having such a hard time with the man to man, we had to try something else. It was the only option we had, and we had to ride it ’till the end,” Brey acknowledged later.

Illinois accounted for the first points of the second half to grab a 10-point lead (its largest of the night)–and then the Irish went to work. Notre Dame went on a 7-0 run, Illinois missed five straight shots, the Irish hit five of their six and by the 14:34 mark an Auguste jumper had Brey’s team back on top at 45-44.

By the 11:38 media timeout, Notre Dame led only 51-49, but the Illini had missed nine of their last 10 shots (Kendrick Nunn was three for 12 at that point) and no one from the home team had reached double figures in points. The Irish went on another 7-0 run-while the Illinois shooting woes showed up at one for 14 and then two for 16 by the time Groce had to call a timeout with 10:16 remaining.

Illinois went nearly four minutes without a point, and Jackson’s three-pointer at 9:52 made it 58-49 for the Irish. The Illini finally nailed a three-pointer to pull back within six, but Auguste, Vasturia and Jackson took turns responding to everything the Illini threw at them. By the time Notre Dame led 62-52, the Irish were on a 14-2 run and had hit six of seven shots.

The Irish had an answer for everything, with Vasturia at one point knocking down a tough shot in the lane with defenders draped around him. Auguste’s layup at 5:09 made it a 12-point lead for the first time at 69-57, and the teams mostly traded buckets the rest of the way.

Notre Dame led 80-66 with 32 seconds to go-and only because the Illini hit five straight shots in 26 seconds did the final score look presentable. By that time the orange-shirted crowd had long disappeared in exchange for blue seatbacks, and the once-buzzing arena had turned deathly quiet. The students were out of gas, and the band had run out of tunes.

“That stuff was fun,” allowed Jackson as he entered the locker room. He ended up with 21 points (as did Vasturia who connected on nine of his 14 shots for his career best in points), hitting all five of his second-half field goals. Auguste added 16 points and 14 rebounds. Matt Farrell chipped in 10 timely points and four rebounds in 23 reserve minutes.

Second-half shooting told it all-Notre Dame was at .571 on 16 of 28 and Illinois was at .351 on 13 of 37. The Irish were an efficient 16 of 22 from the foul line and committed only nine turnovers, after five in the very early going. Notre Dame put up 51 second-half points.

“What a great story for this group,” Brey told his team in the locker room. “The combination of what we did defensively and then our offensive efficiency–we were making great plays.

“We’ve got two wins over Big Ten teams, and we digested what we needed out of Orlando. What a great step. We had our hearts taken from us in Orlando. You had a tough one against Monmouth and you played your butts off against Iowa. You had a tough one against Alabama and tonight you win one against a Big Ten team on the road.”

Said Brey to the media, “This group is still finding itself, figuring itself out. It’s December 2 and we’re trying to figure out who we are. This was a great growth night for this particular team.”

Groce sat courtside doing his postgame interview and acknowledged that if someone handed him a final stat sheet showing only three turnovers to go with 15 assists (as Illinois finished Wednesday), he would guess he would be on the winning side.

“But we did not guard nearly well enough in the second half,” he said. “And I thought Demetrius Jackson was the difference in the game in the second half.

“When you are two of 18 (shooting), three for 20, eight for 32, that puts a lot of pressure on your defense-and yet I thought we were really good defensively in the first half.”

The Irish threw a blanket over the Illini party zone Wednesday night (as Brey recalled, they did the same thing in ruining DePaul’s naming of its court for Ray Meyer). In the process Notre Dame became the eighth team in history to record 1,800 program wins.

More future growth opportunities for Brey’s group lie dead ahead.

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame.

Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:

DeShone Kizer: North of Confident, South of Cocky— Top 10 Things Learned About the Irish So Far in 2015:— Brey’s Crew Receives Rings, Prepared to Raise Banner-and Moves On— Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers:— Men’s Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation:— Australia Rugby Visit Turns into Great Sharing of Sports Performance Practices: Bud Schmitt Doesn’t Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium:— Sunday Brunch: Irish Leave RISP, Still Win Game No. 10— Remembering Bob Kemp: Notre Dame Lacrosse Family Honors Devoted Father— Community Service a Record-Setting Event for Irish Athletics in 2014-15: