March 7, 2018
By John Heisler
Maybe never in University of Notre Dame men’s basketball history has such a disappointing first half — featuring out-of-character, shake-your-head poor shooting — been followed by a 15-minute period that so completely flipped the script.
The end result became the greatest comeback in Irish history.
Notre Dame discovered — just when it thought it had used up all its Barclays Center karma — just enough remained to dispatch seventh-seeded Virginia Tech 71-65 in the second round of the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship in Brooklyn.
The 10th-seeded Irish (20-13) did it by outscoring the Hokies 34-11 down the stretch in a bounce-back effort that couldn’t have been any more impressive given the circumstances and what was at stake.
Mike Brey’s crew remains alive for yet another night to improve its resume — Thursday in a quarterfinal game against second-seeded and fifth-rated Duke. Those same two teams played in last year’s ACC title game on that same floor.
“Just like we drew it up, right?” offered Brey after it was done.
And that’s after the Irish head coach was so frustrated at intermission (the Irish trailed 34-21) that he basically told his players to figure it out themselves.
“We gave up 14 three-pointers against these guys in South Bend. Can’t win doing that,” Brey told his squad in the locker room before tipoff.
The Irish hung in early, building 13-8 and 15-11 leads. But the Hokies scored seven straight points over a 2:05 window and grabbed an 18-15 lead at the 9:57 stoppage.
Whatever anti-shooting virus afflicted Notre Dame in the second half Tuesday night against Pittsburgh returned. The Irish missed 12 of their next 13 shots and Virginia Tech went on a 12-2 run over a 3:39 period. Brey’s crew missed seven in a row until Matt Farrell‘s hoop at 4:47 cut the Tech advantage to 27-19.
A quick, aggressive Virginia Tech defense throttled the Irish shooters, as Notre Dame then misfired on 10 of 11 shots until an Austin Torres bucket at 1:43.
The Hokies committed only five team fouls, so — after making 22 second-half free throws the day before–this time the Irish made and attempted only a pair in the opening half.
Notre Dame finished the first 20 minutes at .250 in the field-goal shooting department (eight of 32), with Colson missing nine of his 10 attempts.
The Irish scored only six points in the final 13:32 of the half.
“We played like crap in that half and we’re only down 13,” said Brey at the break. “We’ll get moving and get our looks in the second half, so we’ll have a shot at this thing. But we’re going to have to work defensively, and we can’t make mistakes.
“You didn’t think it was going to be easy tonight, did you? It’s going to be hard as heck the last 20 minutes. Empty the tank!”
And so they did. But it got worse before it got better.
Noted Irish senior Martinas Geben, “The first couple of minutes in the second half we gave up two layups right away. Things weren’t looking good, but slowly we started chipping away at their lead. We got stops and finally got some points on the board.”
Brey had to call timeout after those two early Hokie buckets.
And still it got worse.
Virginia Tech hit six of its first seven shots in the second half and built a 47-26 advantage with 15:07 remaining.
Brey felt the Irish finally recaptured a bit of momentum when his team reduced the margin to 14 points — first on a Geben dunk at 11:28 and then a minute later on a three by Colson.
Notre Dame went on a 13-0 spree that brought the score to 54-50 after two T.J. Gibbs foul shots at the 7:45 mark.
Neither team scored for a 3:38 span until a Rex Pflueger reverse lay-in at 2:49 brought the Irish within a pair (59-57), as the Hokies missed 11 of 12 shots.
In the midst of the scoreless streak for Virginia Tech, Colson hit an ever-so-unlikely banked three-pointer as the shot clock expired and somehow Notre Dame led 60-59.
After Colson was fouled at 1:14 with the Irish up one, Brey made a great decision to call a timeout to give his senior veteran a chance to catch his breath — and that turned into Colson’s only two made free throws of the night (in five attempts).
Notre Dame hit eight of its final 10 shots — Virginia Tech missed 10 of its last 12. The Hokies ended the game on a five-of-23 field-goal shooting run.
Notre Dame hit 19 of 22 second-half free throws — going seven for eight over a 30-second span in the final minute.
Farrell ended with 22 points (including eight straight made free throws). Pflueger led both teams with nine rebounds to go with 14 points. Gibbs finished with 13 points and seven assists.
Colson had 12 points and seven rebounds and maybe has never hit a more unlikely three-pointer than the one that gave Notre Dame the lead for good.
“What a great win, what a great gutsy win. I couldn’t be prouder of you,” said Brey to his group.
“This was a huge game for a lot of reasons. We were getting our butts kicked for awhile, but we hung in there and our defense was fabulous in the second half.
“One of the great wins in the history of our program.”
Irish assistant coach Ryan Ayers at halftime told strength coach Tony Rolinski he would do chin-ups on a bar in the locker room if Notre Dame came back and won. He happily made good on the promise, doing 21 of them based on the comeback.
“A big turning point was when Austin Torres (he tied his career high with six rebounds) drew the charge and they called the technical (at 8:00 with the Irish still down by eight). The momentum swung our way from there, and we were just able to execute,” added Geben.
“We didn’t have much choice.
“It was do or die, and we finally got locked in on defense.”
The Irish scored 50 points in the second half.
With at least one more game to play at the Barclays Center, the Irish may or may not end up doing enough to merit an NCAA Championship invitation.
But, whatever happens, Notre Dame has made certain it put its grit on full display this week in Brooklyn.