March 26, 2016
About a half hour before Notre Dame’s not-easy-on-the-eyes 61-56 win over Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, the man who saw all of Steve Vasturia’s 1,764 points at St. Joseph’s Prep was decked out in Irish gear at the Wells Fargo Center.
William “Speedy” Morris was sitting in the third row behind one of the baskets, describing some of the qualities that Vasturia would later use to help Notre Dame mount its improbable late comeback.
“Mike Brey called him the ‘Baby-faced assassin,’ but he plays the opponent’s toughest player defensively,” Morris said of his former player. “He’s not quick, but he’s just so smart. He knows how to play angle cuts, position basketball, arms straight up on the shot. He’s just a smart player.”
The 6’5” Vasturia played all over the floor at The Prep depending on the opponent, one through five. So when ND head coach Mike Brey tasked him with guarding rugged 6’8” forward Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin’s leading scorer at 15.9 points per game, it wasn’t anything too out of the ordinary for Vasturia.
Hayes finished the game only 4-12 from the field for 11 points, and despite surrendering about 30 pounds, Vasturia found a way to hold up one-on-one against the Badgers’ leading scorer in the post. Hayes got loose for a few buckets, but he certainly had to work for them. A good bit of that was Vasturia’s doing.
On one key play with about 2:30 left in the game and Wisconsin up two points, Hayes tried to get Vasturia off his feet multiple times with hard pump-fakes in the paint.
Just like Speedy said in the scouting report, his former player wouldn’t bite. Vasturia forced Hayes to take a short contested jumper, which was off the mark.
“[Hayes] does a really good job of hitting tough shots and getting people off their feet, so I just tried to keep my hands up and make it difficult for him,” Vasturia said.
Hailing from Medford N.J., Vasturia’s family had Sixers season tickets when he was growing up. And in his first game playing in the same building where he used to watch Allen Iverson dart around the court, he struggled mightily offensively. The junior guard finished 1-6 from the field, with three assists and three turnovers.
Yet Vasturia still played 30 minutes, and he was involved in the play that swung the game in the Irish’s favor (more on that later). Notre Dame is an elite offensive team nationally, but they advanced to the Elite 8 because of its normally average defense.
None of this was lost on Vasturia’s coach, who even gritted out the second half on an injured calf. Sometimes the cliché is reality: Despite the poor shooting, he does a bunch of helpful things that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet.
“I thought Steve and Demetrius [Jackson] did a great job of staying poised,” Brey said. “They weren't making shots, they weren't in the greatest of rhythm, but they still defended and did tough stuff. Then all of a sudden they all had a big impact.”
Brey can thank Morris for a major assist that dates back almost five years. It was sometime around the summer of 2011, and the Philadelphia Catholic League’s all-time wins leader asked his star player a simple question: Where would you like to go to school?
Vasturia, in between his sophomore and junior years at The Prep, already established himself as a legitimate Division I recruit. Maybe he couldn’t quite pick any school in the country (after all, very few can), but Vasturia was receiving a ton of letters and in the process of scheduling visits.
Deep down, though, there was one school he had his eye on: Notre Dame.
So Morris got on the phone and placed a call to Brey, who informed him that Vasturia was indeed on the Irish’s radar. Furthermore, Brey promised to check him out at an upcoming AAU Tournament in Orlando, Fla. while Vasturia was playing for the Jersey Shore Warriors.
“Two days later, he called me and said, ‘Everything you said about him is true, and we’re going to offer him a scholarship,’” Morris said. “That was his junior year, and his recruiting was finished.”
This being the era of a million sports networks, the Irish play on television quite a bit, which affords Morris the opportunity to watch as many games as his schedule at The Prep allow him to. The two still keep in touch regularly.
“I learned so much from him just on and off the court,” Vasturia said. “Really, I’m just great friends with his family and being able to stay in touch with him and see him the summers, it’s been really great.”
So, about that critical play…
Notre Dame was down 57-56 with 19.3 seconds left, and similar to what most coaches would do in that spot, Brey called for a full-court man-to-man pressure. With a foul to give, Brey instructed his team to trap the first pass, try for a steal, and then foul if Wisconsin beat the initial trap.
Vasturia allowed Hayes to catch the ball in the corner (a perfect spot for a trap, mind you), and then all hell broke loose:
“Me and Bonzie [Colson] both kind of tipped it a little bit, but we did a good job just getting him in a tough place and forcing him into a tough play,” Vasturia said afterward.
However it happened, sixth-seeded Notre Dame is on to the Elite 8 for the second consecutive season. There, they’ll take on a familiar foe in North Carolina that: a. They defeated by four at home in February and b. They lost to by 31 in the ACC Tournament. The Irish will come into the rubber match as heavy underdogs, but many of their players bring the experience of last year’s epic Elite 8 game against Kentucky.
That includes Vasturia, who will look to stop a cold spell that dates all the way back to the ACC Tournament. For his part, Morris sticks mainly positive reinforcement rather than get into any specifics.
“There were a couple of games where he was 3 for 17,” Morris said. “I just told him to keep shooting, that’s the only advice I gave him.”
The message on Friday night was likely the same.
Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann