Notes: Irish freshman guard T.J. Gibbs gets it done in ACC opener

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH – Determined to drive it down the lane, Notre Dame freshman guard T.J. Gibbs used a speed dribble to get to the rim and convert a reverse layup with 11 minutes remaining in Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference opener against Pittsburgh.

Seconds later, a chant surfaced from down the baseline, home to the Pittsburgh student section, the Oakland Zoo.

“Ashton’s better!” everyone in gold Zoo T-shirts yelled in unison. “Ashton’s better!”

That would be Gibbs’ older brother, a former Panther point guard and All-Big East performer who was seated in the high-roller seats along the sideline closest to where Gibbs had just scored. Older brother had little reaction to younger brother’s big bucket, which brought the Irish within two.

Gibbs wasn’t done.

Two minutes later, he delivered a key 3 to tie it at 49 in a game that No. 24 Notre Dame (12-2; 1-0 ACC) won in overtime, 78-77.

“That was definitely one for him and to show him that there’s another Gibbs,” Gibbs said. “It was about the game at that point.”

The studenst never chanted anything at Gibbs again.

Yeah, Gibbs admitted afterward, he heard the fans chanting about his brother. Yeah, he saw his older brother during the game. Yeah, this one was special. Really special.

First conference game, first conference win for Gibbs in a building that his brother long called his own.

“It means so much to me,” he said. “I heard them chanting and it just got me more fired up. I thrive off stuff like that and I love it.”

Notre Dame trailed early by 11, but Gibbs was a key reason for the comeback. He scored seven points, all in the second half, with an assist in 12 minutes. When Notre Dame needed someone steady to step in during a second-half stretch that saw senior captains V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia on the bench, coach Mike Brey turned to Gibbs. He delivered.

“He is a fearless young man,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “He just plays. That’s a big-time game.

“He’s unafraid.”

Cool customer

His shot again escaped him in a big game, a gotta-have game, for Notre Dame. He also spent a stretch of a key second-half run watching instead of working.

It was a tough afternoon for senior captain V.J. Beachem, who finished with six points on three-of-10 from the floor, 0-for-5 from 3. But nobody may have had a bigger smile afterward.

League road wins will do that.

“I’m not tripping at all,” Beachem said of his struggles. “Just to get a huge road win to start off league play is huge for our team.”

The difference Saturday, Beachem said, was the Irish insistence to keep working on the defensive end, even if it meant playing more 2-3 zone than usual. In games against Villanova and Purdue, Notre Dame struggled to get control of the backboard.

The Irish were outrebounded 45-39 by Pittsburgh, but were able to absorb it by holding the Panthers to 37.5 percent shooting, 38.7 percent from 3.

“They got some offensive rebounds, but we came right back and defended,” Beachem said. “That was great for us.”

Stallings steals it

Vasturia was involved in an unusual sequence with 54.8 seconds remaining in overtime and the game tied at 75.

Knocking a Panther pass away, Vasturia lunged for the loose ball, which had headed out of bounds, only to have Pittsburgh coach Kevin Stallings snag it out of the air.

Vasturia immediately signaled to the Irish bench that he would have reached the ball to save it. Officials went to the monitor to review the play, but ruled the original call would stand - Pittsburgh ball.

"I thought I was going to get to it and he kind of grabbed it," Vasturia said. "They looked at it and said it had touched out of bounds first."

Jamel Artis followed with the go-ahead basket with 42.2 seconds left, which set up Vasturia's big 3 to win it.

Big man, big effort

Notre Dame junior power forward Martinas Geben emerged from a music-thumping, happy Irish locker room insisting he was anything but tired.

He felt good, really good.

Geben played more minutes Saturday (a career-high 28) in his first ACC game than he did combined all of last year in league play (15). And they were good minutes. Really good minutes.

Geben delivered a season-high 10 points and nine rebounds. He also anchored an interior that limited the physical Panthers to 18 points in the paint.

“I’m just glad I could be out there and help the team win,” he said. “I just provided a defensive presence there.”

Irish items

• Junior power forward Bonzie Colson delivered his ACC-best eighth double-double with 21 points and 14 rebounds.

• Saturday marked the first time in 14 games this season that the Irish didn't lead by at least 10 points. They also trailed by their largest margin (11) this season midway through the first half.

• Irish guard Matt Farrell played a career-high 43 minutes. He finished with 16 points, five rebounds and three assists.

• Former Notre Dame corner-shot standout Dwight Clay sat in the Notre Dame family section for Saturday’s game.

• Pittsburgh inside linebacker Ryan Shazier sat a few seats down from Ashton Gibbs in the VIP seats. The Steelers close the regular season Sunday at home against Cleveland.

• Saturday’s win was the first for Notre Dame over Pittsburgh as ACC colleagues. The Panthers had won the first three.

• Notre Dame has won three straight in this city dating back to the 2015 NCAA Tournament.

• Mike Brey is 12-11 all-time as Irish coach against Pittsburgh, which has featured three different coaches – Ben Howland, Jamie Dixon and Kevin Stallings.

• Notre Dame won its conference opener for the third time since joining the ACC four years ago.

• Four different Irish took their turns guarding Michael Young in the first half. The leading scorer in the ACC still erupted for 25 points.

• The Irish are 14-3, including six wins in a row, in their last 17 overtime games.

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