Jan. 25, 2017
By John Heisler
Somehow the math ends up looking utterly unfamiliar when Notre Dame faces off against Virginia in men’s basketball.
Ten straight series wins by the Cavaliers now after their 71-54 triumph over the Irish Tuesday night at Purcell Pavilion? There’s no modern-day Irish rivalry record that looks remotely like that. The lone Irish win in the series came 36 years ago when the Wahoos and Ralph Sampson were number one in the country.
A three-for-18 three-point shooting night—worst of the season for Notre Dame? How could that be when the Irish came in leading the Atlantic Coast Conference in that category?
One for 10 from the floor by senior V.J. Beachem? How could that compute when just three days ago Beachem seemingly couldn’t miss from anywhere in scoring 30 points against Syracuse?
Six missed free throws? Notre Dame’s .647 percentage from the line marked its lowest since hitting five of eight back on Nov. 18 versus Loyola (Maryland).
Notre Dame’s 54 points qualified as nine fewer than it had scored in any other 2016-17 game. Its 38-22 rebounding deficit amounted to the first time Notre Dame this year had been out-boarded by more than 10.
Give Virginia—the best defensive team in the country coming in—credit, a whole bunch of credit, for doing what it does at an awfully high level Tuesday. The Cavaliers’ triumph meant Virginia now has won all five meetings against the Irish since Notre Dame began ACC play—by an average of 14 points per decision.
Virginia now remains the one ACC opponent against which the Irish have not secured at least one win in four league seasons.
Much like Saturday against Syracuse, Mike Brey came in far more interested in how his team would defend Virginia than he was in Notre Dame’s offensive flow.
“Our field-goal percentage defense—let’s keep it low 40s or even under 40,” the Irish head coach suggested to his team before the game.
“The last two games we’ve scored in the 80s—probably not gonna be that way tonight, right? There’s no reason to freak out about it. Just understand, not as many possessions, so our attention to detail at both ends of the floor has to be great tonight, it has to be great. Our discipline’s gotta be key.”
On Coaches vs. Cancer Suits & Sneakers night, the visitors grabbed a 14-7 advantage less than eight minutes in, then the Irish rallied to tie it at 16. Notre Dame regained a rare first-half advantage on a Bonzie Colson lay-in (part of his 14 points in the first half) on a bullet pass from Matt Farrell at 4:53 to make it 20-19. Yet the Irish ultimately would lead for only 2:58 in the first 20 minutes (also at 26-25 on a Steve Vasturia lay-up in the final minute).
“Great half, man, it’s gonna be a grinder,” Brey told his team at the break with Virginia on top 27-26 despite Notre Dame committing only a single personal foul and not allowing the Wahoos to attempt a free throw. There were six lead changes in the first half.
“We knew it’s not gonna be in the 80s. Our defense has been fabulous, and their defense has been great—give them credit.”
The Irish hung tough for a while after intermission, connecting on three of their first four field-goal attempts. But the home team could never take the lead—with Virginia building a 38-37 margin with 14:49 to go to nine at 53-44 (at 8:11). Not long after Brey’s crew cut it to five at 54-49 with 6:52 remaining, the visitors went on a 9-0 run as the Irish couldn’t buy a bucket for nearly four minutes.
Virginia ended up connecting on five of its last seven shots, while the Irish misfired on seven of their final nine.
Colson paced the Irish with 20 points but had only three rebounds (after 14 on Saturday). Two of the better teams in the country at avoiding turnovers lived up to that reputation (Virginia had 11, Notre Dame 10).
And it came on a night when teams ranked first (Villanova), second (Kansas) and fourth (Kentucky) in the Associated Press poll also saw the numbers go in their opponents’ favor.
“We had some pretty good looks, but we had to make a couple over their defense,” Brey told his team after it was over.
“That’s a really good team—better than us right now. It counts as one and we gotta go on the road now and bounce back.
“That one stings a little, doesn’t it? We had a hard time guarding at key times.”
By the time midafternoon comes around Saturday the Irish will be halfway through their ACC schedule.
And the beauty of regular-season play? Win or lose—by a lot or a little—and there’s always another challenge around the corner. The next one comes on the road against a Georgia Tech team that’s the only squad to vanquish North Carolina in conference warfare. And then it’s Duke—the gold standard in the ACC of late—coming to Purcell Pavilion Monday evening.
“There’s a lot of basketball to be played,” said Brey.
It’ll be yet another opportunity to make the math come out right.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler follows Irish athletic fortunes for Fighting Irish Media. He has been part of the Notre Dame athletic communication team since 1978.