Noie: A focused Matt Farrell allows Notre Dame men's basketball to find its swagger

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Ten seconds of work, one walk-in 3 and a quick, confident look into the crowd.

That’s all Notre Dame guard Matt Farrell needed Saturday to realize that he was going to have one of those games, one of those career games, at home against Florida State.

He sensed it was brewing. His teammates sensed it was coming. Then Farrell delivered. The Irish delivered.

Sitting out five of seven January contests with a left ankle injury that just wouldn’t get right left Farrell overdue to feel as he did, to shoot it as he did, to score it as he did, to play the way he did in a runaway 84-69 victory at Purcell Pavilion.

“It’s great for us when we’re flowing like that,” Farrell said. “Two games in a row, we played really well.”

No more answering questions about his ankle, or about when he might return or having to cheer from the bench in street clothes. Farrell played Saturday like he had to make up for all that lost time. He got a lot of it back in a hurry.

Ten seconds into the first Irish offensive possession, Farrell had a single focus. He wasn’t going to move it here or swing it there. Wasn’t going to give a fellow guard the chance to create. Wasn't going to dump it down for a low-post touch.

With no Seminole defender offering any resistance, Farrell just killed his dribble, rose and stuck a 3 en route to a career-high 28 points on 10-of-15 from the floor and a career-best six 3-pointers as the Irish improved to 15-10, 5-7 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. After going a month between wins in a seven-game losing streak, the Irish bounced back last week with two wins in five days. It gave them some life and a belief that the final three weeks of the regular season might get interesting.

That Farrell is back doing what Farrell does is no coincidence to the renewed Irish resolve. Just get him healthy, and a late push up the league standings was bound to happen. It might happen.

“We take our lead from Matt Farrell,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “He’s been a warrior for us. He’s been such a tough guy for us.”

This is a different Irish team with No. 5 at the controls and making everything go. It’s a more confident, more aggressive, more attacking group. A group with some serious swagger. They move it differently. They play differently. They just believe. The same group that floated in a fog through much of January has since seen most of it clear. There's a long way still to go, but they're starting to like what they see.

They see it coming together in time for the final five regular season games. Guys better know their roles. Guys know shots are going to fall. They know it’s going to be someone different every night. If it’s not John Mooney and Austin Torres giving good minutes, as both did earlier in the week, it’s Elijah Burns delivering Saturday with five points and two rebounds in 13 productive minutes. It’s Martinas Geben staying steady in the post against some serious size to offer 10 points and eight rebounds and determined defense.

And then it’s the guard trio of Farrell, T.J. Gibbs and Rex Pflueger picking apart the defense as they did Saturday. Brey likes to say that if you have good guards at this level, you’re going to have a chance. Saturday, they were really good. And the Irish had a chance.

Attacking off the bounce in ways seldom seen, Pflueger hit for 19 points. That included seven made free throws, which tied his career best. He'd never scored it the way he did Saturday, though it was hard to tell.

“It’s cool,” Pflueger said with a shrug. “I’m just happy we won.”

Gibbs ignored a shivering shooting start — he hit one of his first 11 shots — to find his groove to go for 19 points.

That’s 66 combined points for the starting Irish perimeter, 69 total for the other team. Yes, Notre Dame also did it big with defense Saturday in holding Florida State to 36.8 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from 3 in the second half. But when those three guys are going the way they did, defense doesn’t really matter. Not for an Irish team that had struggled to score all of last month.

“It’s so much fun,” Gibbs said of all the Irish guards going off. “I love playing with these guys and feeding off their energy. They get going, I want to get going. It’s great.”

It didn’t matter that Florida State had hung around long enough to tie it at 52 with 10:29 remaining. With Farrell at the attacking controls, the Irish simply shifted into overdrive. Winning drive. It’s what so many previous Brey teams have done — get it to game situations late in the second half, get to another gear and leave the other team wondering how it all got away.

The big adjustment for the Irish? Nothing.

“Just keep doing what we’re doing,” Farrell said of the late-game focus. “When we defend and get stops, that gets us going in transition and helps us move.”

The Seminoles might still be trying to figure out what happened after the Irish closed on a 32-17 run to make this one so one-sided that the Notre Dame student body started the Seminole war chant for the final few minutes.

Included in the run was a Farrell pull-up 3 from just inside the halfcourt. When it fell and the place went up for grabs, his teammate and roommate and best friend Bonzie Colson was on the sideline waving his arms furiously in freestyle-swim fashion.

This one was that fun.

It reached a point that Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton had no idea what to do with No. 5. He played the way a senior captain, a senior point guard should play. Confident. Attacking. Fearless.

“That’s what smart, heady point guards will do,” Hamilton said.

Farrell certainly did it. And more.

FLORIDA STATE (17-8): Cofer 5-10 1-1 12, Koumadje 4-6 0-0 8, Angola 1-6 1-3 3, C.Walker 6-8 0-0 16, Mann 2-7 1-2 5, Allen 0-0 0-0 0, Kabengele 0-4 1-2 1, Obiagu 0-0 0-0 0, M.Walker 3-10 0-0 7, Forrest 1-4 4-5 6, Savoy 4-9 0-0 11. Totals 26-64 8-13 69.

NOTRE DAME (15-10): Geben 4-6 2-2 10, Torres 0-1 0-0 0, Pflueger 5-12 7-9 19, Farrell 10-15 2-2 28, Gibbs 5-16 7-7 19, Gregory 0-0 0-0 0, Burns 2-2 1-2 5, Mooney 0-1 1-2 1, Nelligan 0-0 0-0 0, Djogo 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 27-55 20-24 84.

Halftime-Notre Dame 40-34. 3-Point Goals-Florida St. 9-26 (C.Walker 4-5, Savoy 3-8, Cofer 1-4, M.Walker 1-5, Mann 0-1, Angola 0-3), Notre Dame 10-26 (Farrell 6-10, Pflueger 2-7, Gibbs 2-7, Djogo 0-1, Mooney 0-1). Fouled Out-None. Rebounds-Florida St. 32 (Mann 8), Notre Dame 34 (Geben 8). Assists-Florida St. 12 (Forrest 4), Notre Dame 11 (Farrell 5). Total Fouls-Florida St. 19, Notre Dame 15. A-9,149 (9,149).

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame's Matt Farrell (5) moves by Florida State's CJ Walker (2) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, in South Bend, Ind. (NDI Photo/Robert Franklin)