Notre Dame rides another solid start into ACC championship game

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK – For the second time in three seasons, Notre Dame is headed back to a special spot.

Never before 2015 had Notre Dame played in any men's basketball conference tournament championship of any kind. Not in the Big East, and certainly not in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

But the Irish are about to again experience Championship Saturday Night with the chance to again wear some championship T-shirts, cut down some nets and return to Indiana with some serious ACC hardware.

Again.

Bonzie Colson and Steve Vasturia each scored 18 points as No. 3 seed Notre Dame (25-8) sprinted to an early big lead and then held off hard-charging Florida State (25-8) to beat the No. 2 seed, 77-73, at Barclays Center.

Notre Dame has won eight of its last nine after losing four in a row. After finishing the regular season 2-7 against ranked teams, the Irish have beaten ranked teams on consecutive nights in the conference tournament.

A third one - fifth-seeded Duke - awaits in the ACC tournament championship Saturday night, which tips just after 9 p.m.

"It's going to be a fun game," Colson said.

Friday was the seventh time in the last eight years – spanning two different conferences – that Notre Dame appeared in a league semifinal.

Now it's a title test for the second time in three years. In four years in the ACC.

"That's unbelievable," coach Mike Brey said. "Extremely powerful for our program, to have a chance to hang a '17 banner next to a '15 banner in our arena? Are you kidding me? Four years into the league?"

Notre Dame led by as many as 18 in the second half. Florida State got it under double digits – at nine – with 10:22 remaining following a pair of Braia Angola-Rodas free throws. The Seminoles got as close as five.

"They had their nice run, but we countered it with great offensive plays in the second half," said sophomore guard Rex Pflueger. "We've been feeling really good shooting it the last two games."

Notre Dame shot 47.5 percent from the field, 49.1 percent from 3 against the league's No. 5 field goal percentage defense team.

Matt Farrell gave the Irish a 13-point lead with just under five minutes remaining. It was the final Irish field goal. Notre Dame missed front ends of one-and-ones three times in the final minute, then made all four attempts in the final 19.3 seconds.

After leading for 39 minutes the previous night against Virginia, Notre Dame led for 35:36 against Florida State.

For the second-straight night, Notre Dame wrestled control early and never really let go.

"A great start was a big key for us," Vasturia said. "In these tournament games, you get off to a good start and you're feeling good about yourself.

"We combated every run they made."

In need of a bucket in a really bad way after going over five minutes with just one, the Irish got one from a familiar guy in a familiar spot. Notre Dame had seen its lead sliced to eight before Vasturia delivered a corner 3 to bump it back to 11. Vasturia then added a big drive to push it back to 10 with under eight minutes left.

"We're playing hard; we're playing tough," Vasturia said.

At one point with 13:34 left in a game that saw the Irish up by 13, Farrell, Colson and Vasturia had all scored 13 points. Their 39 combined points were one more than Florida State’s 38.

Just when it seemed Notre Dame might not play any better than it did in finally beating Virginia for the first time as ACC colleagues the previous night, it unleashed a big whooping on Florida State in the first half.

It took just a few minutes for the Irish to figure it all out. Notre Dame jumped to a double-digit lead with just under two minutes remaining on a Farrell walk-in 3 in transition. But Notre Dame was far from finished.

Playing as big of a role as he has all year, sophomore guard Matt Ryan stretched the Irish advantage to 18 when he hit his second 3 of the half to cap an 11-0 Irish run.

Ryan had eight points in seven first-half minutes, 11 in the game.

"I hit a couple shots," Ryan said. "It was nice."

Notre Dame was up 42-26 at the break. The 26 points allowed tied the fewest allowed in ACC play by the Irish all year – set the previous night against Virginia.

It also was the largest halftime advantage for the Irish in ACC play.

"We build a lead, it's hard for teams to come on us," Farrell said. "If we can keep getting off to starts like that in the first half, that's going to be really good for us."

The Irish shot 51.6 percent from the field, 53.3 percent from 3 in the first half. They were in such a groove that former Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson took to Twitter to predict that the Irish were headed back to the tournament championship game.

While everything Irish was good at halftime, the Florida State locker room likely was not a happy place. At one point during Notre Dame’s spurt, Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton was screaming as loud as he could at his team from the sideline for their inability to drive the ball with any consistency.

Brey tweaked the Tobacco Road establishment early Thursday morning after Notre Dame finally beat Virginia for the first time in six ACC meetings. Brey said that the plan was for the Irish to arrive early Friday evening at Barclays Center, despite the approximate 9:30 p.m. tip, so they could gather in the locker room and watch what he termed the “J.V. game” between traditional rivals Duke and North Carolina.

The J.V. game was pretty good, one that saw the top-seed Tar Heels let a 13-point lead get away in the second half with guard Joel Berry on the bench saddled with four fouls.

Duke pounced and rode that momentum into Saturday’s championship game with a 10-point win. The building was abuzz for much of that second half. Not so much at the start of the Notre Dame game, which tipped at 9:56.

Notre Dame opened 5-of-8 behind the arc the first 8:10, 0-for-5 inside it.

Ryan carved out some playing time in the first half and made the most of it. He finished one of the few drives of his two-year career, then followed with a corner 3 that bumped the Irish by nine. Prior to that. Mike Brey substituted around him, not taking Ryan out of the game after his usual quick stint.

The decision paid off. Big.

Having won seven of their last eight, including six in a row late in the year in the mustard-gold jerseys, Notre Dame was forced to shuffle plans to wear them a second-straight night at Barclays.

As the higher-seed team, Florida State has the first choice of uniform color. After wearing their home white and garnet uniforms in Thursday’s quarterfinal victory over Virginia Tech, Florida State went with its garnet and gold uniforms.

Notre Dame had two choices – blue or the alternate/alternate green uniforms. The Irish wore blues in the teams’ first meeting back in January in Tallahassee, and lost its first conference contest of the season.

Notre Dame was back in green for the first time since the early-December loss to then-No. 1 Villanova.

Notre Dame wore its mustard-gold jerseys during the Feb. 11 home victory over then-No. 10 Florida State.

Gold or green, it really didn’t matter. The end result was the same.

• No. 22 NOTRE DAME 77, No. 16 FLORIDA ST. 73

NOTRE DAME (25-8): Bonzie Colson 7-13 4-6 18, V.J. Beachem 2-9 1-1 6, Steve Vasturia 7-13 0-0 18, Rex Pflueger 2-3 2-3 8, Matt Farrell 6-15 0-1 15, Martinas Geben 0-0 0-0 0, Matt Ryan 4-5 0-0 11, Austin Torres 0-0 1-2 1, T.J. Gibbs 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 28-59 8-13 77.

FLORIDA ST. (25-8): Phil Cofer 1-2 0-0 2, Jonathan Isaac 2-7 1-3 5, Xavier Rathan-Mayes 5-12 2-3 13, Terance Mann 3-5 1-1 7, Dwayne Bacon 9-14 0-0 18, Jarquez Smith 2-2 1-2 5, Christ Koumadje 0-3 1-2 1, Michael Ojo 0-0 0-0 0, Phil Savoy 0-0 0-0 0, Trent Forrest 1-3 1-1 3, C.J. Walker 1-1 0-0 2, Braia Angola-Rodas 5-8 3-4 17. Totals 29-57 10-16 73.

Halftime_Notre Dame 42-26. 3-Point Goals_Notre Dame 13-27 (Vasturia 4-5, Ryan 3-4, Farrell 3-8, Pflueger 2-3, Beachem 1-6, Gibbs 0-1), Florida St. 5-15 (Angola-Rodas 4-7, Rathan-Mayes 1-3, Mann 0-1, Bacon 0-2, Isaac 0-2). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_Notre Dame 21 (Beachem 7), Florida St. 39 (Isaac 15). Assists_Notre Dame 17 (Farrell 6), Florida St. 10 (Rathan-Mayes 5). Total Fouls_Notre Dame 14, Florida St. 17. A_18,109 (17,732).

Notre Dame guard Steve Vasturia (32) goes up for a shot against Florida State in the first half of ND's victory in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, Friday in New York. (AP Photo/JULIE JACOBSON)

ACC Tournament

Championship

WHO: No. 3 seed Notre Dame (25-8 overall; 12-6 ACC) vs. No. 5 Duke (25-8; 11-7).

WHERE: Barclays Center (18,165), New York.

WHEN: Saturday at 9 p.m.

TV: ESPN.

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.