March 6, 2018
By John Heisler
Mike Brey had to think the final stat sheet Tuesday afternoon came littered with typos.
Four-for-24 field-goal shooting in a half? Surely that couldn’t be his University of Notre Dame team.
Maybe it was the Irish opponent, Pittsburgh, a team that didn’t win any of its Atlantic Coast Conference games in 2017-18 and finished last in the ACC in field-goal shooting (.375) in league contests, that did that.
But, no, on second glance that really was Notre Dame that somehow survived its first-round ACC Championship matchup with the Panthers, prevailing 67-64 even though the final time the Irish made a field goal came on a three-pointer by Matt Farrell with 6:58 left in the game.
Instead, the normally dependable-shooting Irish earned a late lunch with near perfection at the free-throw line. Brey’s group notched its final 12 points of the afternoon from the line, knocked down 22 of 25 in the second half alone and won despite making six less field goals than the Panthers.
All that was enough to propel the Irish (19-13) into a second-round game Wednesday against seventh-seeded Virginia Tech (21-10).
“Remember how I talked about the energy coming out of the locker room at Maui?” Brey queried his players before the game. “I’d never seen anything like that and I’m listening here today and that sounded familiar. We got that juice back.
“Block out and understand a lot of their attempts are going to be threes.
“We’re letting it rip.”
And with that Notre Dame’s Tuesday matinee generally went according to form in the first half:
--The Irish broke to a 7-0 lead in the first two and a half minutes, forcing Pitt to call timeout.
--The Panthers missed 14 of their first 21 field-goal attempts, misfiring on eight in a row over one stretch of about four minutes.
--The Irish scored six straight points to make it a 31-18 margin, then built that edge to 36-20 (the largest of the day for Notre Dame) when Farrell hit a three-pointer at the 1:44 mark.
--Pittsburgh finished the opening 20 minutes with a .281 field-goal clip (nine of 32). The Panthers’ 24 first-half points marked one more than they recorded Wednesday when they lost 73-56 to Notre Dame at Purcell Pavilion.
Said Brey to his group at the break, “Our defense, our D is the key. After the first seven minutes we did a better job of defensive rebounding and keeping them to one and done.
“We’ve got to continue to guard—we’ve got to work and talk, and if an offensive possession is disappointing or deflating it can’t affect you back on the other end. Twenty more!”
Those next 20 looked little like the first 20 for the Irish:
--T.J. Gibbs drove for a layup 19 seconds into the second half. Then the Irish did not record another field goal until Bonzie Colson nailed a jumper at the 10:22 juncture to put his team ahead by 10 at 46-36.
--The Irish were in the bonus by the 13:07 mark and the double bonus at 9:41—and that proved critical as they struggled mightily to make field goals. Notre Dame missed 12 straight shots over one stretch.
Still, the Irish looked to have the game in hand, leading by 11 (61-50) at the 3:09 mark.
Then it got interesting.
A Pittsburgh three concluded an 8-0 Panther run in a 1:30 period—and with 1:37 remaining it became nail-biting time for Irish fans with Notre Dame ahead by only three points.
Gibbs corralled a big defensive rebound and was fouled at 1:01—and he hit both free throws to push the lead to five.
But Pitt’s Marcus Carr canned another three for a 63-61 score at the :47.9 stop.
At the other end Farrell missed a three--and Colson came down with maybe the biggest rebound of the day, was fouled at :22.3 and hit twice from the stripe.
A Pittsburgh three as time ran out made the final score only slightly closer than the ending played out.
The Irish missed their final six shots (and eight of their last nine), while the Panthers bowed up to connect on five of their final six. The Pitt season ended even though the Panthers canned 15 of 29 attempts in the second half and ended up with a .393 field-goal mark (better than Notre Dame’s final .340 figure). Only in a victory at Syracuse this season did Brey’s squad have a lower field-goal percentage (.304 in that two-point win).
The Irish ended with a 26-for-31 free-throw number and turned the ball over only twice in the second half (only six times all day).
Colson led both teams with 19 points (he made nine of 10 free throws and added six rebounds). Farrell had 18 (seven of nine free throws). Rex Pflueger had 13 and Gibbs 11. Those four players attempted all the Irish free throws and won the game with that effort.
“That’s a great win--you get to postseason they’re all going to be hard,” Brey told his players after his 500th career victory ended.
“I’m glad we had a hard game. Because tomorrow night’s going to be a hard game--and a lot of game situations. Our defense was the key. We defended--we defended really well at key times.
“Heck of a job--big time from the foul line. We always know that’s a big weapon for us. We drove the ball, got to the bonus and used that free-throw line as a weapon.
“One down, let’s go get that next one.
“We played our hearts out against Virginia Tech the last time (in an 80-75 loss Jan. 27 in South Bend) and Matty and Bonz weren’t there.”
Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams and his staff watched the entire game from the baseline.
They had to know they didn’t see the best effort by the Irish. They also know they’ll be facing a Notre Dame team that has to look at the 7 p.m. Wednesday matchup as virtually a must-win situation if the Irish want to keep entertaining any NCAA hopes.
The Hokies prevailed in South Bend in January by hitting 14 three-pointers, most allowed all year by Notre Dame in ACC play and most by Virginia Tech in any game this season.
The Irish held serve Tuesday, allowing the NCAA conversation about Brey’s team to last at least another day. They’ll try again Wednesday night in what has become a comfy setting, the Barclays Center where they’ve won eight times over the last six seasons combined.
Said Joe Lunardi on ESPN Tuesday night in reference to the NCAA basketball committee and its consideration of Colson’s injury and 15-game absence, “There’s no precedent for a player of his caliber, a potential first-team All-American, coming back.”
If the Notre Dame gang that couldn’t shoot particularly straight Tuesday finds its marks Wednesday against the Hokies, the Irish will have some reasonable opportunity to extend that chatter even further.