Analysis: No. 21 Notre Dame flips the script, guards to get get ACC basketball win

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Might be time to scrap the late-season script that was starting to take shape about the No. 21 Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

For the previous four Atlantic Coast Conference games, all wins, the Irish had spread the floor and scored. A lot. Did it to the tune of an average of 84.2 points per game.

They cut. They moved. They scored. They won.

But the guys in the mustard gold uniforms also can guard and had to do it to run their league win streak to five Sunday with a 64-60 victory over Georgia Tech at Purcell Pavilion.

It was a season low for points allowed in a conference game for the Irish.

Notre Dame (22-7; 11-5 ACC) jumps back into a tie for second place – now with Florida State and Louisville –with two games to go.

The Irish weren’t getting out of their own gym after a week off without doing some tough stuff. So they did it. They defended. They rebounded. They competed, all while their shots weren’t falling.

It wasn’t easy on the eyes for stretches, but the Irish didn’t care,

“That’s what I want the people to have the perception of us – that we’re a hard-nosed, gritty team that’s not just an offensive juggernaut,” said sophomore guard Rex Pflueger, who did plenty of the tough stuff in a career-high 35 minutes when the tough stuff was required. “We’re here to play defense, too.

“That’s our mentality every game now.”

That mentality helped take this one in the second half when it was there for the taking. Notre Dame limited Georgia Tech to 40.6 percent from the floor (down from 50 in the first half) and 18.2 percent from 3. The Yellow Jackets finished with a (+7) rebounding advantage but managed only four second-chance points in the game and 32 in the final 20 minutes.

“Our ‘D’ was the difference,” coach Mike Brey said. “We missed some looks that we usually make, but it didn’t affect us going back on the other end and guarding.”

For the previous four games, the narrative for Notre Dame was this: It would ride a small lineup and just outscore other teams. The Irish were going to go for 80, and dared teams to do the same. Few did.

Worked against Wake Forest. And Florida State. And Boston College. It also worked eight days earlier at North Carolina State. The Irish then shut it down for a week in preparation for a stretch run that features three league games in seven days.

On Saturday, the fun ride came to an end. Brey gathered his group and hammered home one point – life had been good the previous two weeks. The ball moved. The offense flowed. The points piled up. It seemed easy.

The Irish hadn’t had to do much tough stuff during the win streak. But the tough stuff was coming, and in bunches, against the Yellow Jackets.

Sunday’s game, he stressed, was going to be really hard.

It was.

But the Irish had the answers.

“We haven’t been in the battles in a while,” Brey said. “When some frustrating stuff happens, are we going to mentally tough enough, like we’ve been most of the season to be where we’re at, to fight through that and go back and guard?”

If so, Notre Dame would remain in the mix to snag one of the four double byes in the ACC tournament for a third consecutive season.

They did and they are.

“That’s what makes us special,” said junior power forward Bonzie Colson.

Nobody played with more focus despite the frustration than guard Matt Farrell. It wasn’t long after the jump ball that Farrell found it rough going from all angles. He tried to dribble through traffic, but couldn’t. He tried to get into a rhythm, but it just wasn’t there. He picked up two early fouls and got barked at by Brey. He had a forgettable first half.

It wasn’t much fun. At all.

“It was a frustrating game, but we defended well enough,” Farrell said. “That’s a really good sign for us – defending to win games.”

Farrell still had to find a way to still play. And he did.

“It’s just staying focused and doing whatever it takes to win,” he said. “At that point, when you’re that frustrated, it doesn’t matter anymore about you. It’s about winning.”

Right before Farrell started the second half, Brey went to him with a message – “It’s your half,” he told the point guard.

He played like it.

Farrell scored 14 of his 17 points after intermission, including 9-of-10 from the foul line. He also hit perhaps the night’s biggest shot. Farrell found himself in the far corner with the ball and the shot clock ready to expire when he hoisted a fade jumper. As soon as it left his hand, he thought it looked good.

It was.

It fell to give the Irish a six-point lead with 3:40 remaining.

“I just tried to make winning plays,” Farrell said.

Farrell then helped the nation’s best free throw shooting team close it out from the foul line. He connected on seven of eight over the final 1:48.

“It’s a weapon for us,” Farrell said. “Send us to the line when we’re ahead, it’s going to be tough to beat us.”

Georgia Tech (16-13; 7-9) got as close as two points with 4.4 seconds remaining. Tadric Jackson led the Yellow Jackets with 20 points.

"Where we started in April to be where we are now and how much we've progressed to be a good team is so much credit to our young men," said Yellow Jackets coach Josh Pastner. "Our effort was great, but our margin for error is literally zero."

Colson finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds for his league-leading 17th double-double.

He was a one-man wrecking crew for a brief burst in the first half. Despite getting his right contact lens knocked out in the opening three minutes – he had to check out of the game and put it back in – Colson was his usual aggressive, attacking self.

“It woke me up, got my juice flowing,” Colson said. “It was time to ball out.”

Colson went for seven-straight points and 12 of 15 at one point simply by working. And hustling. And battling. He tipped it once, twice, three times before getting a flip shot to fall that gave the Irish a two-point lead. Next time down, after making a steal, he dropped in a walk-in 3, then extended the Irish lead to seven with a tip-back of a Steve Vasturia miss.

“Just trying to be active, just trying to play with everything I’ve got,” said Colson, likely headed for first team All-ACC honors by this time next week. “Just do what I do.”

Same with the Irish, albeit something new.

GEORGIA TECH (16-13): Stephens 1-5 0-0 2, Lammers 4-11 4-5 12, Heath 6-9 0-0 12, Heyward 0-0 0-0 0, Okogie 6-16 1-3 14, McCormick 0-0 0-0 0, Moore 0-0 0-0 0, Jackson 9-17 0-0 20. Totals 26-58 5-8 60.

NOTRE DAME (22-7): Beachem 3-14 0-0 8, Colson 8-14 1-1 20, Vasturia 3-9 0-1 7, Farrell 3-8 9-10 17, Pflueger 1-3 3-4 6, Torres 0-0 1-2 1, Ryan 1-5 0-0 3, Gibbs 1-4 0-0 2. Totals 20-57 14-18 64.

Halftime--Notre Dame 34-28. 3-Point Goals--Georgia Tech 3-15 (Jackson 2-8, Okogie 1-1, Heath 0-2, Stephens 0-4), Notre Dame 10-29 (Colson 3-3, Farrell 2-5, Beachem 2-9, Pflueger 1-2, Vasturia 1-4, Ryan 1-4, Gibbs 0-2). Fouled Out--Stephens. Rebounds--Georgia Tech 38 (Lammers, Okogie 10), Notre Dame 27 (Colson 11). Assists--Georgia Tech 7 (Heath, Stephens 2), Notre Dame 12 (Vasturia 5). Total Fouls--Georgia Tech 18, Notre Dame 12.

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Notre Dame sophomore guard Rex Pflueger scraps for a loose ball in front of Georgia Tech's Tadric Jackson during Sunday's game at Purcell Pavilion. (AP Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)