Notre Dame again competes but cannot get needed ACC men's basketball victory

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Once again, Notre Dame battled and believed and put itself in position to finally experience some Atlantic Coast Conference basketball success.

But for the fifth-straight time since the Irish last won – 22 days and counting – it was the other team that made the plays and did enough when enough was required down the stretch. As well as Notre Dame worked in erasing what seemed like an insurmountable deficit to Virginia Tech, coach Mike Brey’s team had this to show for it.

Nothing.

Again.

Unable to generate points when points were needed over the final 93 seconds of a one-possession game, Notre Dame fell to 13-8, 3-5 in the ACC following an 80-75 loss at Purcell Pavilion.

“Finding a way to get out of it is what this team’s about,” said sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs. “Our culture’s strong. We’re not going anywhere. We know who we are and we’re going to keep playing the way we play.”

The team’s fifth-straight loss wiped out career nights from Gibbs and fellow sophomore John Mooney. Gibbs scored a career-best 27 points in all 40 minutes. He had 19 in the second half. Mooney secured his first double double for points and rebounds with 15 and 11, both career highs. He also played a career-best 32 minutes.

Afterward, Brey gathered his guys in the locker room and left them with a new team rule.

“He said there’s to be no anger and no frustration the rest of the way out,” said Mooney. “Just play as hard as we can and keep emptying the tank.”

It was emptied.

Again.

Having battled back from 15 points down with 12:13 remaining, Notre Dame never could get closer than two points. The best it could do was get an open 3-pointer for Nikola Djogo with 51 seconds remaining. But when that didn’t fall, Hokies power forward Chris Clarke answered the call.

Clarke scored Tech’s final six points in the 16 seconds to help escape with a coveted league road win. Virginia Tech did it by making 14 3-pointers. No ACC opponent in Notre Dame's five seasons in the league has made more.

Notre Dame lost for the third-straight time at home, something that hasn’t happened since long before the ACC or the Big East or any conference affiliation. Saturday was the first time that the Irish lost their third straight at home since way back in 1993-94 when the program was still independent.

Virginia Tech looked like it would run away with this one before Notre Dame was able to do something it had struggled to get semblance of the prior three weeks. It found an offensive rhythm. Found a flow. Found a way to score points that didn’t require so much work. For the much of the second half, the Irish looked like the Irish have long looked under Brey. They scored points, and finished the second half with 48. They made shots, hitting 51.6 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3. They got to the foul line and made free throws (10-of-12, 83.3 percent).

“That second half, we got going on the offensive end,” Mooney said. “We were going. We just didn’t make enough plays at the end to pull it out. It hurts.”

In the process, that got them confident. Got Brey confident. Got the bench confident. The building awoke. Just maybe, the Irish would do enough to pull this one out. They were close, but again, not close enough to really make it matter.

“The confidence, the shooting, the defense, it’s all there,” Gibbs said. “We’ve just got to put it together.”

Notre Dame fielded its eighth different starting lineup in its first eight league games. With Thursday’s announcement that senior point guard Matt Farrell would be shut down indefinitely – at least for the next two games – to allow a bone bruise in his left ankle to fully heal, Djogo rotated into the starting lineup.

“Everyone in this locker room can play," Gibbs said.

With three starters down because of injury, the Irish rotation went only seven deep. It looked like that would be sliced to six when junior captain Rex Pflueger took a nasty fall after being undercut trying to rebound an Irish miss with just over 14 minutes left. Pflueger looked in obvious pain with a possible left leg injury. He was helped off the floor, then sprinted back from the trainer’s room, over to the scorer’s table and back into the game at a timeout.

“He took a hard fall,” Gibbs said. “He came back like Superman. That gave us more energy.”

Shot-making has been an issue for the Irish of late and Saturday was no exception, at least early. Notre Dame again labored long stretches without baskets. It hit one of its last 11 in the first half and was headed toward a double-digit deficit before a Gibbs halfcourt heave fell. That brought some life back into the building and brought the home team back within seven, 34-27.

Notre Dame had a lot of good looks and chances to cut deeper into the deficit. The Irish were down only seven when Djogo had an open corner 3. That one missed. Virginia Tech then went down and mustered a corner 3 from Tyrie Jackson. That one fell and pushed the home team back down by 10. That’s the way it’s gone of late – and for too long. The Irish battle and believe, but they just can’t make enough shots.

The Irish started a different way defensively – going to a 2-3 zone look that the Hokies promptly shredded. Virginia Tech connected on seven of its first 11 looks and opened a double-digit lead less than seven minutes in. Usually going zone helps the Irish, but not this time. When they went man, however, that helped them get some stability on the defensive end. They guarded. They rebounded (again). They got stops to keep the Hokies from running away and hiding.

The defended well enough (again) to win (again).

Win or lose, play well or struggle, Notre Dame had little time to dwell on anything that happened Saturday. The Irish traveling party departs Sunday afternoon for North Carolina and a Big Monday matchup with No. 4 Duke, which lost earlier Saturday at home to No. 2 Virginia.

Saturday was shaping up to be one of those wild days in the ACC. The day’s first four games were decided by an average of five points. That included a pair of overtime games. This one looked like it was headed to one-sided city before Notre Dame made it interesting.

Again.

“We’re disappointed,” Brey said. “But I’ve got no beefs with my guys, man. As long as they keep emptying the tank like that.”

Notre Dame's T.J. Gibbs (10) passes around Virginia Tech's Nickeil Alexander-Walker (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

VIRGINIA TECH 80, NOTRE DAME 75

At Purcell Pavilion

VIRGINIA TECH (15-6): Kerry Blackshear 2-6 4-6 9, Justin Robinson 4-11 2-2 12, Ahmed Hill 3-8 0-0 9, N. Alexander-Walker 4-10 0-0 11, Justin Bibbs 8-10 0-0 20, P.J. Horne 0-0 0-0 0, Devin Wilson 1-1 0-0 2, Tyrie Jackson 2-3 0-0 5, Wabissa Bede 0-1 0-0 0, Chris Clarke 5-7 2-2 12. Totals 29-57 8-10 80.

NOTRE DAME (13-8): John Mooney 5-8 3-4 15, Martinas Geben 4-10 2-2 10, Nikola Djogo 1-7 0-0 3, T.J. Gibbs 8-20 6-6 27, Rex Pflueger 5-13 1-3 15, Elijah Burns 0-2 2-2 2, Austin Torres 1-1 1-2 3. Totals 24-61 15-19 75.

Halftime--Virginia Tech 34-27. 3-Point Goals--Virginia Tech 14-25 (Bibbs 4-4, Hill 3-6, Alexander-Walker 3-6, Robinson 2-5, Blackshear 1-1, Jackson 1-2, Clarke 0-1), Notre Dame 12-29 (Gibbs 5-10, Pflueger 4-10, Mooney 2-3, Djogo 1-6). Fouled Out--Blackshear. Rebounds--Virginia Tech 27 (Clarke 14), Notre Dame 38 (Mooney 11). Assists--Virginia Tech 19 (Robinson 7), Notre Dame 10 (Gibbs 5). Total Fouls--Virginia Tech 19, Notre Dame 11. A--9,149 (9,149).