Jan. 11, 2015
When Demetrius Jackson swished an NBA-range three-pointer as the shot-clock buzzer sounded to give the University of Notre Dame men's basketball team a 37-33 lead against the No. 3-ranked Virginia Cavaliers on Saturday, a sellout crowd at Purcell Pavilion roared, and Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey allowed himself a brief second to think about what might be.
"(Demetrius) throws that one in at the end of the clock, and you think maybe the karma's really good and we're going to sneak out of here," Brey said.
Notre Dame played tough in the Atlantic Coast Conference showdown, but so did Virginia, especially down the stretch, as the Cavaliers claimed a 62-56 victory.
No. 13 Notre Dame (15-2 overall, 3-1 in the ACC), looks for a bounce back when the Irish play at Georgia Tech on Wednesday. Virginia (15-0 overall, 3-0 ACC) hosts Clemson on Tuesday.
Brey and Irish fans can't be blamed for thinking that Purcell Pavilion would witness another magical moment.
Under Brey's direction, the Irish knocked off the last five top 10 opponents they've played at home. The Irish hit list included No. 7 Duke (79-77 on Jan. 4, 2014), No. 8 Kentucky (64-50 on Nov. 29, 2012), No. 1 Syracuse (67-58 on Jan. 21, 2012), No. 8 Connecticut (73-70 on Jan. 4, 2011), and No. 9 Georgetown (69-55 on Dec. 29, 2010).
Virginia, though, made plays down the stretch. The Cavaliers hit seven of their last 10 shots and outscored the Irish 21-11 in the final 8:13. Notre Dame was one of six shooting in the final 3:45 and missed the front end of a one-and-bonus chance.
What Irish fans saw on Saturday was a team that can take a national championship contender to the wire. If Virginia is in the ACC elite, Notre Dame is right there as well. The Irish displayed the fight that will help them win these kind of games when the stakes are even higher, games in the ACC Tournament, and more importantly, games in the NCAA Championship.
Brey said he has no doubt the Irish will keep the Virginia game in perspective and learn from it to be a stronger team.
"They've been really focused," Brey said of his club's ability to see the big picture. "I told them that the last time we lost a game (75-74 setback against Providence) we came off the mat pretty good the last time I checked."
Notre Dame has shown exceptional resiliency this season, and Brey loves the fight he's seen. Notre Dame fought back from the Providence loss to reel off 11 straight wins, including a hard-fought overtime victory against Michigan State, a double-overtime victory against Georgia Tech and Notre Dame's first victory at North Carolina, a one-point nail-biter.
"What I talked to (the players) about was, we go back on the road now. Our first road league game (at North Carolina), we played really well," Brey said. "I want to get that kind of mindset as we go to Atlanta, to see if we can bounce back. I have the utmost confidence in our leadership. Our leadership will not let this (loss) linger."
Brey said whether the Irish won or lost against unbeaten Virginia, he was going to keep the Irish on an even keel.
"I had the speech ready either way," Brey said. "We can't get too high and have a parade, and we can't be jumping off buildings. We're either 3-1 or 4-0 in the conference. Relax. It's early, and we have to go on the road on Wednesday. I talked a lot about that.
"I said, `We're in a great position. We played our backsides off. A good team got the better of us down the stretch. They played like a group that's done it a little more than us in crunch time.' I'm hoping in a month we're more like them, and we've shown that already, that we can be really poised like that in crunch time."
There were plenty of positives for the Irish to use as a springboard.
Sophomore forward V.J. Beachem sparked a 13-0 run in the first half that helped the Irish take a 27-24 halftime lead. Beachem scored 12 points in the first half, starting the run with a three-pointer and adding an exclamation mark with a thundering put-back dunk as Notre Dame erased an early 10-point deficit.
Senior swingman Pat Connaughton supplied firepower in the second half when Virginia targeted Irish scoring leader Jerian Grant. Connaughton scored 16 of his 21 points in the second half. Grant made sure he still had a big hand in the Irish offense, dishing out six assists to go with his six points.
Notre Dame stepped up its rebounding effort. Virginia grabbed eight of the first 10 rebounds, but Notre Dame ended up outrebounding the Cavaliers 35-34 and outscored Virginia 20-10 in second-chance points.
Connaughton said there was a slim different between No. 3 Virginia and an Irish team poised on breaking through to the top 10.
"I think it's just make winning plays, execute a little bit better," Connaughton said of how to beat top-five teams. "When you're playing the third-ranked team in the country, you have to do a lot of things right. We did the majority of things right, I just don't think we did enough things right.
"You can look at the free-throw percentage ... six of 12 isn't how we want to shoot as a team. It's the winning plays that they made that we didn't make. We'll learn from this. They're a great team. It will help to look back on this game and see what we did wrong and prevent it from happening in games down the road."
Notre Dame's effort on the boards improved dramatically, an important step forward.
"I like the way we offensive rebounded, and we won the rebounding margin overall," Connaughton said. "Those are things we've been working on, and that we need to work on more. We need to get out and run more and get the easy baskets that we've gotten all year that we didn't get against Virginia."
Connaughton expects the Irish to come out swinging on Wednesday at Georgia Tech.
"I think we have grown more mature," Connaughton said. "I think we have a team in there that knows when we take a loss, it is on to the next one. We need to do that."
Beachem said the Irish have the fight to not let the setback snowball.
"I like our toughness and how together we are," Beachem said. "We're really a family. We have to stay together and come back and be ready to go and practice hard. That's been big for us all year. We have very competitive practices all the time, and that's what we have to do Monday to be able to come back."
Brey said the Irish are disappointed in defeat, but determined to make strides.
"I think you have to give credit to Virginia," Brey said. "They made big jump shots when they had to, to give themselves some space. They played like a team that's won a championship when they had to down the stretch.
"It's encouraging since we certainly didn't have an answer for them last year," Brey said. "They may be the best team in the league. I think we're developing an identity in this league. That was the goal when we joined the ACC. We didn't really have that last year."
Brey loved the way his team battled back from the 10-point deficit when Virginia gained the upper hand early.
"We settled down and guarded," Brey said. "We didn't get out of character offensively. We've been down 10 in this building a couple of times. It's interesting territory, and we've fought back. We did some good stuff. We're disappointed. I don't want to overanalyze it. We need to get our legs back under us and get on the road. I give Virginia credit."
What will help the Irish most in fighting back and continuing to emerge as a force this season is the mental toughness this club possesses.
"I feel like we're going to win every game," Brey said. "I think this group feels they're going to win every game they play, that's why they're really disappointed. They've developed that mentality."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent