Notre Dame wins again, last undefeated basketball team in Atlantic Coast Conference

Tribune Staff Report
ND Insider

BLACKSBURG, Va. – And then there was one.

Two weeks into conference play, where the Atlantic Coast Conference is said to stand alone as the nation's toughest, one team remains undefeated.

Notre Dame.

Alone in first place at 16-2 overall and a school-record 5-0 in the league, the No. 20 Irish made it three-straight league road wins following Saturday's 76-71 survival test at Virginia Tech.

"We're really excited about what we;'re doing on the road," said Irish guard Matt Farrell. "It shows a lot of toughness, shows the trust we have in each other.

"That's a good win for us. We just believe."

Just when it looked like they were down and done, the Irish delivered again.

Trailing by one with 1:52 remaining after twice letting big leads get away, Notre Dame scored six quick points in less than a minute to seal it.

"That one's just like the previous four for us," Irish coach Mike Brey said. "They made a run. I love how we answered. We really believe we can win close games.

"I'm really proud of our group."

Notre Dame has won its five league games by a total of 23 points.

Losers at home for the first time after winning 15 straight, Virginia Tech is 13-4, 2-3. Chris Clarke led the Hokies with 21 points.

“It just feels bad,” Clarke said. “I feel like we got out-toughed at the end, and we really take a lot of pride in that [being tough]. It’s just a big blow. We needed to win this game.”

Notre Dame escaped Cassell Coliseum despite missing four free throws the final 28.8 seconds. The leading free throw shooting team in the country coming in (84.1 percent), the Irish shot 65 percent (13-for-20). The seven misses all surfaced in the second half.

"We didn't play well in the second half," Farrell said. "We stay poised, we stick to what we do and we execute."

The late free throw misses and the struggles earlier in the second half didn't matter.

"We have great mental toughness," Brey said.

Steve Vasturia led the Irish with 20 points.

"It was a typical ACC game on the road," Vasturia. said. "We did a good enough job on defense, especially at the end of the game, to come out of here with a win."

A quick burst by Notre Dame put this one away.

With the Irish trailing 67-66, Farrell gave the Irish a one-point lead on a drive, V.J. Beachem made it three on another drive and T.J. Gibbs capped it with a drive of his own to make it 72-67 Irish with 41.1 seconds left.

"We have always figured it out, under four minutes," Brey said. "And get it to the right guys. Guys want to take big shots and make big plays."

"You like those moments," Vasturia said.

A Clarke bucket and free throw gave the Hokies their first lead, 67-66, since it was 10-9 at the 14:09 mark of the first half.

Up by as many as 19 in the first half, the Irish were up 14 with 12:49 left following a 10-1 run. But back came Virginia Tech, which just looked fresher as the Hokies started attacking the basket.

Tech ran off on a 14-3 spurt, spearheaded by Clarke (seven points), to get it back to the old game situations. A Justin Robinson 3 cut the Irish lead to three, 57-54, with 7:45 left.

The Irish looked as if they were running on fumes. Slow. Bad shot selection. Missed shots. Missed free throws. It was as if the previous three days – two of travel, one game – had caught up. A delayed charter flight Friday out of South Florida forced Notre Dame to scrap any sort of practice plan Friday.

Another Robinson 3 following two Farrell free throws made it a two-point game, 59-57, with 6:57 left. Robinson wasn’t done. He drove it hard to the hole next time down to tie it at 57 and cap a 19-5 run.

Who would answer for Notre Dame? Who else? Vasturia drained a deep 3 from out front to give the Irish a 62-59 lead with 5:03 left.

"We've got a real confident group," Vasturia said.

Gibbs delivered a big effort off the bench. With Farrell looking a bit gassed to start the second half, Gibbs checked in earlier than usual, and promptly delivered two big dribble-drive buckets. That was part of a 6-0 run to push a seven-point lead back into double digits at 11.

Gibbs then added two free throws to push the Irish up by 13.

Gibbs scored a career-high 13 points.

Bonzie Colson finished with his 11th double double for points (14) and rebounds (12).

Notre Dame took an eight-point lead at intermission, but it could have, and maybe should have, been a lot more.

For a four-plus minute stretch of the first half, Notre Dame played about as well it has all year. Better than the first half against Villanova. Better than the first half against Purdue. Better than any spurt against North Carolina A&T, a team it beat by 54 points.

The Irish were clicking. Everyone. From everywhere. The visitors ripped off 17 unanswered points, part of a devastating 21-2 run that bumped Notre Dame up by 19 points (33-14) following a Vasturia steal and score.

"We're really good offensively," Brey said. "We were able to get (defensive) stops and run. We're pretty good in transition when we can get going."

Five different Irish scored during the burst. Gibbs added a transition 3 and runner through the lane. Austin Torres had a big bucket inside. Vasturia did it from deep. So did Farrell. And Rex Pflueger.

Vasturia had a team-high 12 at the break.

But just as it looked like Notre Dame would roll, back came Virginia tech. And back came Seth Allen.

Slowed earlier in the week against Syracuse because of lingering concussion-like symptoms from the previous weekend, Allen responded to the 19-point deficit by firing from 3. And firing. And firing.

Allen connected on three quick 3s, part of his own personal 11-0 run to slice the Irish advantage nearly in half in less than four minutes.

Virginia Tech went on a 15-4 run to get within eight. Notre Dame, which opened 14-for-20 (70 percent) from the field, managed only one basket the final 7:49.

Notre Dame scored 33 points in the first 12:11, then just six the final 7:49.

Notre Dame’s three-game road swing ends Wednesday at No. 9 Florida State.

• No. 20 NOTRE DAME 76, VIRGINIA TECH 71

At Blacksburg, Va.

NOTRE DAME (16-2): Bonzie Colson 4-7 6-9 14, Martinas Geben 0-0 0-0 0, V.J. Beachem 2-8 0-0 4, Matt Farrell 5-11 3-5 14, Steve Vasturia 8-14 1-2 20, Austin Torres 2-2 0-0 4, Matt Ryan 0-0 0-0 0, T.J. Gibbs 5-7 2-2 13, Rex Pflueger 2-5 1-2 7. Totals 28-54 13-20 76.

VIRGINIA TECH (13-4): Zach Z.LeDay 5-11 0-0 10, Ahmed Hill 1-5 0-0 2, Justin Bibbs 2-8 0-1 4, Justin Robinson 5-9 2-2 14, Chris Clarke 7-11 7-12 21, Khadim Sy 2-3 0-0 4, Seth Allen 6-10 1-3 16, Ty Outlaw 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-57 10-18 71.

Halftime--Notre Dame 39-31. 3-Point Goals--Notre Dame 7-18 (Vasturia 3-4, Pflueger 2-4, Gibbs 1-2, Farrell 1-4, Beachem 0-4), Virginia Tech 5-18 (Allen 3-6, Robinson 2-6, Z.LeDay 0-1, Hill 0-2, Bibbs 0-3). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Notre Dame 30 (Colson 12), Virginia Tech 29 (Clarke 9). Assists--Notre Dame 14 (Farrell 5), Virginia Tech 12 (Clarke 5). Total Fouls--Notre Dame 16, Virginia Tech 18. A--9,567 (10,052).

Notre Dame guard Steve Vasturia (32) drives against Virginia Tech guard Chris Clarke (15) during Saturday's game at Cassell Coliseum. (AP Photo/DON PETERSEN)