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Sunday Brunch: Irish Defense Dooms 'Cuse

Jan. 22, 2017

By John Heisler

Irish basketball coach Mike Brey strode purposefully into the Irish locker room 25 minutes before game time Saturday against Syracuse at a jam-packed Purcell Pavilion.

Routinely printed on the board each game are three defensive keys and three offensive keys that the Notre Dame coaches have determined are crucial to creating a victory.

So what did Brey do?

Before he said a word, he asked for a towel and wiped off the offensive keys.

That’s how strongly he felt about Notre Dame’s ability to prosper when the Irish had the basketball. Yet it was more a statement about which end of the floor Brey felt his team needed to emphasize if the Orange was to be dispatched.

Just a hunch on the part of Brey and his staff? Probably not.

In fact, he turned out to be exactly right.

Points? They came easily for the Irish. The Irish posted 41 points in the opening half and 43 more after the break (shooting .536 from the floor in the final 20 minutes) of the ultimate 84-68 Notre Dame victory-even against the vaunted Syracuse zone that normally becomes a focus of any Orange game.

But it was Notre Dame’s defense ââ’¬”and its ability to limit Jim Boeheim’s crew to woeful 37 percent first-half shooting-that enabled the Irish to build a lead as large as 15 points in the first half and then essentially coast their way through much of the second period.

“It’s about how we guard defensively, how we get into them,” Brey told his players. “I want us to think about guarding the heck out of them, especially early.

“We’re back in transition-no easy buckets. Let’s have our best talk of the season today on defense.”

Maybe it was a bit of karma with former Irish great David Rivers in the house for his Ring of Honor halftime ceremony.

Maybe it was a little juice from the Chicago Cubs’ World Series trophy that made its appearance on the floor at the first timeout-after Boeheim had to call that stoppage of play with his team already reeling, behind 12-4 after the Irish scored seven in a row.

Maybe it was the Notre Dame students, back to see their Irish play for the first time in Atlantic Coast Conference play-they had to be ecstatic that Brey’s crew had bolted to first place in league play while they were home enjoying the end of their holiday break.

And how about that Irish defense? It played a major role early in forcing Syracuse to misfire on 10 of its first 13 shots.

V.J. Beachem, on his way to a career day (30 points), dunked twice in a 45-second span at the midway point of the first half-and the home team was off to the races. It was 39-24 at one stage. Only because the Orange connected on its final three first-half shots and five of its last six (to make it a nine-point game at intermission) was it interesting (Syracuse had made only five of 21 before that).

“Great defense,” Brey told his group at half. “We’re defending our butts off.”

For the second half, Brey shed his sports coat-partly due to the balmy 59-degree temperatures outside but also because work remained to be done.

Notre Dame built the advantage back to 16 less than four minutes into the second half, fueled by a 13-3 run. Syracuse missed a dunk attempt and then had an alley-oop try rejected by the Irish. The Orange was doomed to its eighth consecutive road loss. Another 7-0 Notre Dame run made it an 18-point game midway through the second half.

With four minutes to go, Rex Pflueger banked in a three-point shot-that’s the kind of day it became for the home team.

“Our defense has been really bad on the road,” admitted Boeheim.

Said Orange forward Andrew White, “We’ve been a step late, and if you’re a step late, they’re going to get you.”

The Irish hadn’t beaten Syracuse like that since a 20-point win in 1998-in fact, the Orange had won seven of the last eight meetings overall. Fifteenth-rated Notre Dame, now 17-3, scored 10 more points than its average in league play.

“We had that field-goal percentage defense under 40 percent most of the game,” Brey told his charges after it ended. “Big-time team effort.”

And Brey kidded his players that their success against the 2-3 Syracuse zone meant the Irish coach’s cell phone was destined to light up.

He’ll take it.

Notre Dame had 20 assists (nine by Matt Farrell) on its 29 field goals.

The Irish lead the nation in free-throw shooting (and are on pace to better the all-time NCAA season mark)-and they only improved those figures by making 15 of 16 Saturday.

Beachem’s gaudy afternoon (the last of his six three-pointers made it a 22-point lead) somewhat obscured another nifty effort by Farrell (15 points) and a typical work-a-day performance by Bonzie Colson (14 points, 14 rebounds).

Brey’s crew remains tied for first in the ACC.

For now, life is good.

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been part of the Notre Dame athletics communication team since 1978. Watch for his Sunday Brunch offerings each week.