Analysis: Notre Dame men embrace, answer adversity as ACC basketball drama kings

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Nobody has stared down drama and its ugly mug, then delivered in the early going of Atlantic Coast Conference play like No. 20 Notre Dame.

The Irish awake Saturday morning in Blacksburg, Va., on a serious league roll before the second of a three-game road swing. Winners of six in a row, including its first four in league play, Notre Dame (15-2; 4-0 ACC) visits Virginia Tech (13-3; 2-2) in a likely raucous Cassell Coliseum. One tough atmosphere awaits.

Off to its best conference start in school history and 15-2 for the second time in three seasons, Notre Dame wouldn’t have it any other way.

Adversity is its buddy. The Irish embrace it. Welcome it. Then beat it. Did it again Thursday with a 67-62 comeback victory at Miami (Fla.).

The Irish didn’t shoot it well, didn’t rebound it well, didn’t play well for stretches. They let slip an 11-point second-half lead. But with another league game there for the taking, they stayed steady enough to wrestle it away and waltz out of town with another win.

“Our belief and mental toughness right now is as good as anybody in the league,” coach Mike Brey said after last week’s comeback over Clemson. “There is a great will to win.”

The Irish M.O. is obvious four games into the 18-game ACC schedule – weather the first 35 minutes well enough to get to game situations in the final five. A lead, a tie, a deficit doesn’t matter. Dare the opposition to deliver in winning time.

Then go and grab it with a big shot or a big stop, even a combination of the two.

Happened on New Year’s Eve in Pittsburgh despite Notre Dame being down five with 2:43 remaining in regulation. Result? One-point overtime win.

Happened last week at home against Louisville. Tie game with two minutes to play? Seven-point victory.

Happened again three days later against Clemson. Down two with 3:04 left? Five-point win.

Happened Thursday against a Miami team that looked in control. The Irish were down four and floundering with 2:54 remaining, then scored 10 of the game’s final 11 points for another five-point win.

Subtract the five-minute overtime period against Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame has outscored opponents by a combined 36-16 in the final three minutes of each of its first four league games. Opponents have shot 5-of-17 from the field (29.4 percent) with six turnovers.

The four league wins have been by a combined 18 points. The only other undefeated ACC team in league play – No. 9 Florida State – has won its four conference games by 49 points.

The Irish do it at home. They do it on the road.

They close.

A memorable line from Alec Baldwin’s character in the movie “Glengarry Glen Ross” states that “Coffee’s for closers, only,” but Brey doesn’t do coffee. A venti black ice tea with three sweet and low sugars and no water is his order of choice from the Starbucks at the corner of Ironwood Drive and State Road 23 near campus. He gets one every game night on his way to Purcell Pavilion. One time a few seasons back, the shop served him ice coffee, a mistake that Brey didn’t discover until he had eased his SUV into the coaches’ parking lot. Brey raced back for his usual order, which includes a slice of banana walnut bread, lest the all-important karma be upset.

That karma’s on cruise control. An Irish outfit long known for being efficient on offense has stayed steady at the league wheel because of … defense.

Defense won the Pittsburgh game. It allowed the required breathing room against Louisville and Clemson. It surfaced again Thursday after the Hurricanes had repeatedly gashed the Irish interior with dribble drives against man.

Notre Dame scrapped its man for much of the second half, and the zone delivered. After the Irish fell into the four-point deficit with under three minutes to play, the best the Hurricanes could muster was one point with one missed shot and three turnovers.

“We’ve been able to get big defensive stops in all four of these wins,” senior captain Steve Vasturia said afterward. “That has been the backbone.”

Notre Dame ranks fifth in the league and 68th nationally for scoring defense (66.4 ppg). Those numbers were ninth and 144th last year. The Irish field goal percentage defense (39.6) is fifth in the ACC and 39th nationally, as opposed to eighth and 155th a year ago.

The Irish are good because they're again efficient on offense, but they also guard.

“That’s stuff I don’t think we’ve been able to do annually here in my program,” Brey said earlier this week.

This is a program riding some serious swagger. Winning swagger. Go deep in March swagger. Notre Dame is two bad second halves from 17-0. How many teams with its only two losses to Top 25 teams can say the same?

The madness of March remains a long way off, but this team has the look of one poised to handle the postseason swings. Get them into game situations. Back them into corners. Doubt them. Then watch them work. Confidence is not a concern. The Irish can close. Have. Will.

Back in South Florida, Brey delayed his immediate post-game victory body bump with walk-on Matt Gregory in favor of something new.

Brey sauntered through the locker-room door — John Travolta-like as he termed it — stood in front of his guys, smiled and said, “Streak snapping in South Beach, baby! Wow!” after Miami’s 21-game home win streak evaporated Thursday evening.

Brey eventually found Gregory for their bump.

Like the Irish, he delivered.

Again.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Answering adversity is a big reason why V.J. Beachem and the Notre Dame men's basketball team are off their best start in conference play history, 4-0, heading into Saturday's Atlantic Coast Conference game against Virginia Tech. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)

WHO: No. 20 Notre Dame (15-2; 4-0 ACC) vs. Virginia Tech (13-3; 2-2).

WHERE: Cassell Coliseum (10,052), Blacksburg, Va.

WHEN: Saturday at 2 p.m.

TV: WMYS.

INTERNET: ACC Network Extra at WatchESPN.com.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

NOTING: Zach LeDay scored 22 points and Justin Bibbs added 19 as five Hokies scored double figures in Tuesday’s 83-73 home win over Syracuse. The win snapped a two-game league losing streak for Tech, which opened conference play with a home win over then-No. 5 Duke. Virginia Tech committed a season-low six turnovers against Syracuse after a combined 36 the previous two games. … Guard Seth Allen returned to action Tuesday after missing one game with concussion symptoms. He had 11 points and five assists against the Orange. …The Hokies spent one week – last week – in the Associated Press poll at No. 21 before falling out following road losses to North Carolina State and Florida State. … Virginia Tech went 11-1 in non-league play with wins over Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska and New Mexico with a loss to Texas A&M. … The Hokies are 10-0 at home, 2-0 in league play. … Eight players average at least 12.3 minutes; four average at least 10.7 points, led by LeDay, a South Florida transfer, at 16.6. … Virginia Tech is fourth in the ACC in scoring offense (83.3), 11th in scoring defense (72.1). The Hokies are third in field goal percentage (48.8), 12th in field goal percentage defense (42.8). … Three starters return off last year’s team that finished 20-15, 10-8 and tied for eighth in the ACC. … The Hokies were picked this preseason to finish 10th in the league. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series, 6-1 … Notre Dame is 2-0 on the road in league play; the rest of the ACC enters Saturday a combined 6-21. … The Irish close a three-game league road swing Wednesday at No. 9 Florida State.

QUOTING: “The confidence is pretty high with this group.”

• Notre Dame senior captain Steve Vasturia.