Notes: Notre Dame men have become conference basketball tournament semifinal regulars

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK – Friday nights in early March at the annual conference tournament once was too foreign for the Notre Dame men’s basketball program to even comprehend.

Back in its early days in the Big East, Notre Dame often was headed back to campus before dinner during the first night of games. Same held true for its first foray in the Atlantic Coast Conference, where the Irish lost the first game on the tournament’s first day.

Semifinal Fridays now are as common as gathering together on the west end of Purcell Pavilion and singing the alma mater following regular-season home games.

Notre Dame has played in the conference tournament semifinals in seven of the last eight years. The previous 14 years, Notre Dame made only one semifinal cameo.

Wake Up the Echoes, indeed.

Playing perhaps its most complete game against a quality opponent as it had all year, maybe in two years, No. 3 seed Notre Dame (24-8) advanced into Friday’s ACC tournament semifinals with a 71-58 victory late Thursday over nemesis Virginia.

The Irish have won seven of their last eight.

“March tournament basketball is fun,” said senior captain Steve Vasturia. “We’re playing well at the right time. You get a win, you get to come back and have another shot.”

The Cavaliers had beaten the Irish five-straight times by an average of 14 points as ACC colleagues, but this one wasn’t even that close.

Notre Dame dominated from start to finish to move into Friday’s late game against No. 2 seed Florida State. Working deep into the night – the “night-stalkers” as coach Mike Brey refers to his bunch – is nothing new for Notre Dame.

Nor are semifinal Fridays.

Up in midtown Manhattan, there was nothing like a Big East semifinal doubleheader at Madison Square Garden. Former President Bill Clinton talked hoops with anyone and everyone backstage. The annual instrumental of “God Bless America,” always played in place of the national anthem before the second game, sent chills down spines.

On Friday, the rivalry game between Duke and North Carolina, where hard feelings and hard fouls run deep on Tobacco Road – was the opener of the ACC semifinals at Barclays Center.

Notre Dame and North Carolina are the only two ACC teams to get to the conference tournament semifinals each of the last three years.

“It’s amazing,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “In this league, to get to the semis, our fan base may be spoiled a little bit.

“It’s been a pretty darn good run.”

Rex-diculous dunk

There was no question for Notre Dame sophomore guard Rex Pflueger that he was going to throw down a degree-of-difficulty dunk following his steal and breakaway early in Thursday’s second half.

The only question was how high the degree. The kid with a vertical leap near 40 inches was thinking ceiling. And beyond.

“I really haven’t had a fast-break that was that open before in college,” Pflueger said. “I was thinking about a 360, but I was like, I’ve got to keep it safe.”

THAT was safe?

“Yeah, it was,” Pflueger said. “I hung on the rim a little bit just to make sure.”

Pflueger’s play might have been the first time since early in the career of former guard Chris Thomas that an Irish guard has delivered a reverse dunk in a game.

“We’ve seen him do it in practice,” freshman guard T.J. Gibbs. “He has big cojones for doing that in a game. That was a big move right there.”

That Pflueger even toyed with the idea of doing something spectacular was staggering. At the time, Notre Dame led by only eight points. Back-rimming a reverse dunk likely would have awoken the Cavalier crowd, and the Cavaliers. Instead, it bumped the Irish lead to double digits, where it remained for the final 18:16.

Brey allowed Pflueger to experiment in the open floor after his close-down defensive effort on second team All-ACC guard London Perrantes, who finished 1-of-9 from the field.

“Rex worked so hard guarding Perrantes, he had the green light to do whatever right there,” Brey said. “That’s our boy. It’s a Hollywood thing.”

It’s all good

Tempers got a little heated in the closing minute Thursday when Virginia was looking to foul, stop the clock and force the Irish to close it out from the free throw line.

Cavaliers forward Mamadi Diakite grabbed Irish guard Matt Farrell by the chest and shoulders and swung him around hard. Really hard. That didn’t sit well with Irish power forward Bonzie Colson, who rushed in from the opposite side of the floor to say something.

Diakite was assessed a Flagrant One foul before cooler heads prevailed the rest of the way. And afterward.

“It was nothing,” Farrell said. “He talked to me after the game. He’s a good kid. Just trying to foul. Part of the game.”

The leading free throw shooting team in the country coming in, Notre Dame finished 18-of-25 (72 percent). Virginia went just 7-of-12.

All good too

Where the ACC tournament should or shouldn’t be held has been a hot-button issue with conference head coaches here this week. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim opined that the ACC tournament, with its roots in North Carolina, should never, ever, ever be held in Greensboro and always in big cities. North Carolina coach Roy Williams believes it’s important that the league never forgets its roots.

Brey sees both sides, but doesn’t care where the tournament plays just as long as he can play in it.

“I certainly like Greensboro; I’ve got great memories there,” Brey said. “I like when it goes to Tobacco Road. I think it’s great in New York. I love that we’ll be here two years.

“I bet we’ll rotate back to the Garden someday.”

Brooklyn bits

• Former Irish guard and New Jersey native Gary Brokaw was honored during Friday’s doubleheader as part of the latest class of ACC Legends. Among the former Irish honored in previous tournaments – none of whom ever played in the ACC – were Pat Garrity (2014), Troy Murphy (2015) and Adrian Dantley (2016).

Brokaw scored 1,001 points in his career (1973-74).

• Notre Dame took a six-game Barclays Center win streak into Friday’s game. The run started with a victory over Brigham Young in November 2012. That game followed the lone Irish loss in the building, an overtime setback the previous night to Saint Joseph’s (Pa.).

• Former Irish guard and assistant coach Martin Ingelsby visited the locker room following Thursday’s game. Ingelsby closed 13-20, 5-13 and ninth place in the 10-team Colonial Athletic Association in his first season as a head coach at Delaware.

• The Irish improved to 3-7 against ranked teams with Thursday’s win over No. 21 Virginia. It was Notre Dame’s first win over a Top 25 since the Feb. 11 victory over then-ranked No. 10 Florida State and first one away from home this season.

• Thursday’s victory was No. 380 in Brey’s 17 seasons at Notre Dame. He’s 14 wins away from surpassing Digger Phelps (393) and becoming the winningest coach in school history.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

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