No. 21 Notre Dame men get second basketball shot at Georgia Tech

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Long faces lingered that late-January afternoon in midtown Atlanta after the long, losing walk back to the visitor’s locker room.

Having been beaten by Georgia Tech in the closing seconds of a contest Notre Dame thought it had under control, that one wasn’t going to go away anytime soon.

Freshman guard T.J. Gibbs would play and replay the game’s final few seconds in his mind. He thought of guard Matt Farrell’s off-balance offering near the lane that bounced away in the closing seconds of a tie game. He saw Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie sliding free up the far sideline. Gibbs tried to get there to either intercept the outlet or cut Okogie off from a straight-line drive to the rim as time was about to expire.

He did neither as Okogie dropped in the winning bucket at the buzzer. Georgia Tech 62, Notre Dame 60. It was the second of four-straight Atlantic Coast Conference losses for the Irish.

“I definitely played it over and over the next couple of days, just thinking about the different things that I could do if I was in that situation again,” Gibbs said. “It was a tough one. If we ever get put in that situation again, we’ll handle it better.”

Notre Dame (21-7; 10-5 ACC) may have that chance Sunday at a sold-out Purcell Pavilion when Georgia Tech (16-12; 7-8) comes calling for a prime-time national television conference contest (6:30 p.m., ESPNU). Motivation for the No. 21 Irish runs deep. Tied for third place with No. 7 Louisville in the ACC, Notre Dame is positioned to earn one of the four double byes in the upcoming league tournament. A solid run through the last three games over the next seven days also could push the Irish as high as second in the league standings and improve their NCAA Tournament seeding.

And there’s the loss at McCamish Pavilion. It didn’t sit well then, and still doesn’t now.

“For our guys, they will want to play well because that one hurt,” said coach Mike Brey. “We had the ball with a chance. Maybe we didn’t deserve that, but we were there.

“That’s the most down and upset that I’ve seen them. They were mad with how they played and how they finished.”

But not necessarily that they lost. That was a magical week for Georgia Tech, which was coming off a home victory over then-No. 6 Florida State. The consecutive home wins over ranked teams has helped push the Yellow Jackets to the brink of NCAA tournament consideration, a place Brey believes they belong.

“Everything they had going for them then helped propel them,” Gibbs said. “Now they have to come into our environment. We’re going to play our game.”

That’s something the Irish seldom did the first time. It wasn’t so much that Georgia Tech won that it was how Notre Dame played. Or didn’t play. The Irish didn’t shoot it well enough (40.4 percent from the field, 63.7 percent from the foul line), didn’t protect it well enough early (seven of their 11 turnovers were in the first half), didn’t score it (second-lowest point total in league play this season), just didn’t play well enough to win.

That eats at them.

“We let that one slip away,” said sophomore guard Rex Pflueger. “I don’t want to say this is a redemption game, but it’s a game we’ve looked forward to to get back at them.”

This is a different Notre Dame team. Back then, the rotation featured two traditional bigs. The Irish now work with a four-guard rotation that often features plenty of five-out looks with the four spread and dribble-drive-kick-finish opportunities.

Still, the Irish have to be a lot smarter with the ball and with their decision-making than they were the first time around against center Ben Lammers and power forward Quinton Stephens. The first matchup saw the Irish try to challenge the Tech size too many times around the basket, be it in the halfcourt or on the break. The result often was a blocked (seven) or altered shot.

Lesson learned for Farrell. Too many times against Tech, he tried to force something at the basket. Since then, he’s been better balancing when to push it and attack and when to pull it back out, set something up, get a good shot and, in Brey’s words, “not try to take on the world at the rim.”

That mindset, that moxie, is tough to totally take away.

“We’re still going to attack the rim, get in the lane,” Farrell said. “We just have to make better decisions down there. We’ve got to get better shots every time down the floor against them.”

That’s easy to say, tough to do against a Georgia Tech team that keeps teams guessing with its changing defenses. Be it on the perimeter or around the basket, the Yellow Jackets guard. Hard. Consistently. Confidently. Get past the first wave of defenders and Lammers lurks near the rim. He may not block every shot, but he’ll have the Irish wondering where he’s at. Notre Dame has found a flow offensively in averaging over 80 points a game (84.2) during its four-game win streak. But that number, and that rhythm will be tested.

“It’s a challenge for our offense,” Brey said. “They’re tough to score on.

“It’s a hard game.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

WHO: No. 21 Notre Dame (21-7 overall; 10-5 ACC) vs. Georgia Tech (16-12; 7-8).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Sunday at 6:30 p.m.

TICKETS: The game is a sellout.

TV: ESPNU.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

INTERNET: WatchESPN.com.

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

NOTING: Notre Dame enters the final week of the regular season in tied for third place in the ACC with Louisville; Georgia Tech is in 10th. … The Irish were picked in preseason to finish seventh in the league; the Yellow Jackets were picked 14th. … Josh Okogie scored 25 points and Quinton Stephens added his sixth double double in league play with 11 points and 10 rebounds in Tuesday’s 71-69 home loss to North Carolina State. The Yellow Jackets missed nine free throws and 12 layups. … Georgia Tech has won three of its last five. … Center Ben Lammers leads the ACC in blocked shots (3.43), is third in rebounding (9.3) and fourth in field goal percentage (51.8). … Okogie has been named ACC rookie of the week a league-high four times. … Georgia Tech ranks second in the league in field goal percentage defense (39.6), fourth in scoring defense (66.8) and 14th in scoring offense (68.0). … The Yellow Jackets look to finish .500 or better in league play for the first time since 2007 when they were 8-8. … Georgia Tech is 1-5 on the road in ACC play with the win at North Carolina State; Notre Dame is 5-2 at home in league play. … Georgia Tech leads the all-time series 9-6. Notre Dame is 5-2 at home against Tech. … The Yellow Jackets have won the last two meetings – both in Atlanta - by a combined three points. All seven ACC matchups have been decided by eight or fewer points. … Georgia Tech is one of four repeat opponents for Notre Dame, which closes the regular season with three games against repeat opponents. The Irish host Boston College on Wednesday before the March 4 season finale at No. 7 Louisville. … Georgia Tech has games remaining at home against Pittsburgh and at Syracuse. … The Irish have been idle since an 81-72 victory Feb. 18 over North Carolina State. …. Saturday is Notre Dame’s sixth sellout of the season, all in ACC play.

QUOTING: “They’re going to see a new us.”

• Notre Dame sophomore guard Rex Pflueger on the rematch with Georgia Tech.