Analysis: Ask Notre Dame men's basketball to deliver in close ACC contest, Irish deliver - again

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Close conference contests with outcomes there to snare allow No. 23 Notre Dame to settle down and settle in with the belief that somebody in blue and gold and white will figure it out.

The Irish have figured it out in league play.


And again.

And yet again Saturday.

For the third straight Atlantic Coast Conference game, everything would swing on which team made more big plays, winning plays, at the right time. And for the third time in eight days – ever since conference play commenced with a bang and a Steve Vasturia corner 3 just before the overtime buzzer at Pittsburgh – it was the Irish who had all the right answers at the right time.

Notre Dame got something from everyone to overcome early struggles and a whole lot of sluggishness against Clemson on Saturday, a day that ended with the Irish moving to 14-2 overall, 3-0 in the ACC for the second time in three seasons with a 75-70 victory.

Less than a week into ACC play, only Notre Dame and No. 12 Florida State (15-1; 3-0) remain undefeated.

Put these Irish in game situations and watch them deliver. Did it in Pittsburgh. Did in earlier in the week at home against No. 9 Louisville. And did it again Saturday in a contest that was a one-possessions game (three points or fewer) a staggering 28 times over the final 15:03 when there were seven ties and no team led by more than three until a Matt Farrell crusher 3 with 9.3 seconds for the final score.

“It’s really fun for us, the confidence we have in everyone to be able to make a play,” said sophomore guard Rex Pflueger, who joined the deliver-in-crunch-time fiesta with a drive and dish to Bonzie Colson in the closing minute. “We practice that a lot. It’s amazing because it’s not the same person making the game-winning play. It’s always someone else.

“We don’t worry. It’s going to happen.”

It happened in waves against a Clemson team that refused to fold. Not after the Irish recovered from an early Tiger blitz that saw them run off the first 10 to put on their heels. Not after Notre Dame delivered a 17-2 scoring run fueled by five 3-pointers, to go up by five not even 10 minutes in.

The Tigers just kept coming, kept punching, kept scoring. But the Irish seemingly had answers. Every. Single. Time.

Like when Farrell shook off 29 forgettable minutes to offer four that many won’t soon forget. His 3-pointer bumped the Irish up two with 2:40 remaining. But he was just getting started.

Down one in an out-of-bounds under situation coming back from a timeout, Farrell rocketed a pass to his right and hit Vasturia in the corner. His 3 gave Notre Dame a two-point lead (70-68).

Then in stepped Pflueger, on the floor for major second-half minutes. He pump-faked a defender, drove it hard to the hole and bounced a pass to Colson for a 72-70 lead with 59.8 seconds remaining.

Who made plays in a game that featured seven ties and 15 lead changes? Who didn’t?

“Everybody did,” Vasturia said. “Everyone stepped up. We made enough winning plays and that’s something that we’ve been stressing. It’s been fun.”

Fun because it’s not just the senior captains Vasturia and V.J. Beachem, who responded to a way-too-quiet game four nights earlier in a way a veteran does – a team-high 22 points. It was this guy and that guy and these guys, a group that may just have the makings of something special the deeper this crazy conference ride gets.

How do you game plan to stop these Irish? Clemson coach Brad Brownell thought he had a way.

“It’s hard to guard them all,” he said. “They’ve got guys that are tremendous basketball players. They play with great confidence.”

With wins and losses riding on executing game situations, a certain calm washes over the Irish. Like, this is what they believe they should do. They should figure it out. They should make shots, then get stops (they registered a kill, three straight stops, in the closing minutes). While it's all busting loose with fans in the stands hollering about this and that, the Irish stay calm. Stay together. Stay focused.

It’s become the bedrock of this basketball program.

“Our will to win not only today but all week has been fabulous,” said coach Mike Brey, who will long remember his 700th career game as a college coach. “It’s really been contagious, how guys kind of feel like this is what our program does.

“It gets to be kind of an understanding that this is what we do.”

And at the end, with the game there for the taking, it was Farrell who took it. Wrestled it away from everyone else. Benched in the early going, Farrell was called out by his head coach during a halftime tirade that included a kicked garbage can and a steady stream of choice words that cannot appear in print directed his way.

“He,” Farrell said, “came in hot.”

Farrell decided in those closing moments that he would run “flat” which basically means everyone in a white jersey clears out toward the baseline and lets the point guard make a play. Earlier in the year, Farrell drove it to the hoop for a layup and foul against Northwestern. This time, he wasn’t going to get anywhere close.

Up two, Farrell pulled up and buried a deep 3.

“I was taking that no matter what,” Farrell said. “I wanted to take that after the first half I had.”

It wasn’t so much how Farrell started but how he finished. Same went for the Irish.

“First half wasn’t fun for me,” he said. “I got challenged at halftime to respond. I just wanted to win the game and we did. We found a way. We responded.”



CLEMSON (70): Jaron Blossomgame 9-17 4-4 22, Donte Grantham 3-9 0-0 8, Sidy Djitte 2-3 0-0 4, Shelton Mitchell 4-6 0-0 8, Avry Holmes 1-4 0-0 3, Elijah Thomas 4-6 1-2 9, gabe DeVoe 4-7 2-2 14, Marcquise Reed 1-5 0-0 2. Totals 28-57 7-8 70.

NOTRE DAME (14-2): Martinas Geben 1-3 0-0 2, Bonzie Colson 5-10 2-2 13, V.J. Beachem 8-14 0-0 22, Steve Vasturia 6-15 0-0 14, Matt Farrell 5-10 1-2 15, Austin Torres 0-0 0-0 0, Matt Ryan 1-2 0-0 3, Rex Pflueger 2-4 0-0 5, T.J. Gibbs 0-2 1-2 1. Totals 28-60 4-6 75.

Halftime--Clemson 40-33. 3-Point Goals--Clemson 7-18 (DeVoe 4-7, Grantham 2-5, Holmes 1-3, Blossomgame 0-1, Mitchell 0-1, Reed 0-1), Notre Dame 15-32 (Beachem 6-10, Farrell 4-7, Vasturia 2-6, Ryan 1-2, Colson 1-3, Pflueger 1-3, Gibbs 0-1). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Clemson 27 (Blossomgame 8), Notre Dame 27 (Colson 12). Assists--Clemson 14 (Mitchell 5), Notre Dame 18 (Farrell 7). Total Fouls--Clemson 9, Notre Dame 13.

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Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson (35), left, and Martinas Geben (23), right, celebrate with Matt Farrell (5) after a late 3-pointer cemented a 75-70 victory over Clemson. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)