This time, Irish don't flinch at finish

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND-Fool me once, shame on you.

Fool me twice …

Nope, it wasn’t going to happen again. Was it?

Another large halftime lead eroding into oblivion?

Lessons learned from the Notre Dame basketball team’s misadventure in Maryland last week kept the sky from collapsing on the Irish against Virginia Tech Sunday night.

Last Wednesday, Notre Dame’s nine-point advantage over the Terrapins with 20 minutes to play was turned into an eight-point Irish loss.

Sunday night, the lead got to 15 by halftime and was whittled down to two midway through the second half. But this time Notre Dame didn’t flinch. The Irish maintained their poise, got some rebounds, played some defense, made some shots – and survived.

Heck, this was the Digger Phelps lovefest. No way the Irish were going to let this one slip away, right?

Up two and a long way to go, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey tried his best to at least look like the loosest coach in America, his signature moniker.

But, inside…

“Don’t panic. Be poised,” is what Brey said he kept telling himself. “The worst thing for me to do would be to panic and get uptight. Our guys would feel that. Inside, I’m all knotted up, but I’m trying to be calm outside. I thought we really reacted with some key possessions offensively, to get (the lead) back to two possessions.

“We got some big defensive stops. They had 17 turnovers. That’s something new for us.”

Those were the most turnovers the Irish have forced in their five Atlantic Coast Conference games.

“We were better with the ball (against the Hokies),”

said Brey. “We only had 10 turnovers (two in the second half; the Irish had 17 turnovers against Maryland). We had some really bad turnovers (against the Terps).

“The other key was (Virginia Tech) only got eight offensive rebounds. Maryland got 20. Those two areas, we were better at.”

“It was just: Keep playing. It’s a long game,” said Pat Connaughton, who led the Irish with 21 points.

He drained a couple big 3-pointers to keep the Hokies at bay.

“We’ve been in these situations and we’ve been down,” Connaughton said. “We’ve been able to use the long game and come back. When you’re on the other side of it, you want to make sure you’re getting those stops and doing those toughness things that can put a team away.

“It was nice to see us bounce back when they cut it to two, like we didn’t do against Maryland.”

“(The loss to Maryland) showed us that we really have to come out and compete in the second half,” said guard Demetrius Jackson, who had 11 of his 13 points in the first half. “We had a lead at Maryland and we lost it because we didn’t come out ready to compete.

“Pat, one of our captains, said at halftime: ‘We had a lead at Maryland, let’s continue to play hard and finish the game.’”

The finishing part had more to do with defense than anything.

“We talked about continuing to guard,” guard Eric Atkins said of the halftime conversation. “In the Maryland game, our offense dictated how we were playing defense.

“We struggled a little bit offensively in the second half of the Maryland game, and it carried over to our defense. When we went into a little slump on offense (against Virginia Tech), we kept playing defense. That’s what we talked about, not letting up. We definitely did let up in the Maryland game, and they came back.”

When the lead got to two, Atkins said he wasn’t worried.

“We’re going to pull this out,” he said of his mindset. “We’re pretty good in this building. I didn’t waver at all.”

“It’s just a matter of getting stops,” said Connaughton. “Each team in this league can beat anybody. We just had to weather the storm. We learned from Maryland.

“As much as you don’t like to learn from a loss, you do learn from losses. We were able to dig down and get the stops we weren’t able to get and make the tough plays we weren’t able to make a couple days ago at Maryland.”

Losing can make a big impression.

Lessons don’t come easily.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com 574-235-6318

Notre Dame guard/forward Pat Connaughton (24) works under the basket during Sunday's win over Virginia Tech at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER