March 10, 2017
By John Heisler
BROOKLYN--Saying the Irish were overdue marked a solid understatement.
Scan the Notre Dame men's basketball record book for one-sided series records (in the wrong direction) and the one against Virginia stood out in bold-face type.
Coming into Thursday night's quarterfinal matchup in the 2017 New York Life Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, the Cavaliers had won 10 of 11 games against Notre Dame.
Irish coach Mike Brey was 0-5 against Virginia, the only ACC team his squads had not been able to defeat at least once in the four seasons Notre Dame has been in the league.
Virginia counterpart Tony Bennett was 6-0 against the Irish--including an NCAA second-round win when he coached at Washington State.
The only previous Irish success probably counted as the most unlikely, given it came by a 57-56 count on a last-second Orlando Woolridge jumper to defeat the unbeaten, top-ranked, Ralph Sampson-led Cavaliers in Chicago in 1981 (the first time the two teams met).
And, maybe as frustrating as anything, is that most of the recent games had not been close. Virginia's five wins since the Irish joined the ACC had been by an average of 14 points. Notre Dame's 17-point loss to the Cavaliers in January at Purcell Pavilion marked its worst of the season.
The Irish countered with a little Barclay Center mojo based on their four consecutive wins there in the last 12 months (and five in a row overall)--two on the 2016 NCAA Championships first week of play last March and two more when Notre Dame won the Legends Classic in late November.
Not to mention the Irish probably felt like they were playing at home considering their backcourt--Steve Vasturia, Matt Farrell and T.J. Gibbs--comes from New Jersey and their leading scorer, Bonzie Colson, from Rhode Island.
Notre Dame even found itself assigned to the same locker room it used in November when it won the Legends Classic with victories over Colorado and Northwestern.
The Irish came in as the three seed, matching their best previous standing in that category (also in 2015 when Notre Dame won the event).
The Irish ended 21st-rated Virginia's four-game winning streak with their 71-58 victory, with the Cavaliers coming in leading the country in scoring defense (55.1 points per game).
Only this time it was the Notre Dame defense that merited all the attention.
The Irish got off to a hot start, using a 14-2 run, building a 10-point lead, hitting four of its first five shots and six of its first eight. Meanwhile Virginia missed nine of its first 11 attempts from the floor, thanks in great part to solid man-to-man defense by Notre Dame.
Colson had 11 first-half points, V.J. Beachem had seven rebounds in the opening period (only three times all year did he have eight in a full game)--and the Irish held a 17-12 edge on the backboard at intermission while outshooting the Cavaliers .522 (including four of five three-pointers) to .385. The leading Cavalier scorer, senior London Perrantes, took only four shots and had two points. Kyle Guy missed all five of his field-goal tries.
"Great half, man. Great half. Way to guard the heck out of `em. That's all I'm concerned about. We're going to score enough," said Brey. "For the most part we kept them to one and done. Twenty more, let's go."
The Irish scored the first 11 points of the second half (as Virginia missed its first seven shots) for a 17-point advantage that marked Notre Dame's largest to that point. Perrantes stood one for seven in the shooting category when Marial Shayok finally got the Cavaliers on the board in the second half at 14:39 with a pair of free throws. Virginia's first basket of the half came 6:29 into that session.
In this case, Virginia's slower, purposeful style didn't make it easy to cut into that sort of lead. Notre Dame displayed consistent patience of its own to build multiple additional 17-point advantages. By the 7:08 media timeout, the Irish defense--as gritty as the Brooklyn pavement--had forced Virginia to miss 13 of 18 second-half shots.
Bennett's four starting guards combined to make only nine of 31 shots--and five of those (on seven shots) came by Devon Hall.
Brey and the Irish will turn the page quickly after hitting 12 of 23 shots in each half. Colson had his usual double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds.
"Thirty-eight percent field-goal percentage defense--that's a fabulous job," said Brey to his players.
"Way to get out of the gate great on both ends to start the game and then start the (second) half. Let's defend. Let's really lock in and defend to do it. Heck of a job. We got work to do.
"I said we had to get through these guys--I think it's a little bit of karma. And we love this building. By god do we look good in this building.
"We're gonna be quick, get out of here, get some rest and play the late show tomorrow."
Virginia's five starters ended up with a combined 25 points.
More defense in that neighborhood figures to leave the Irish in more good positions.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com.