Irish win pair of ACC games, fall to Cavaliers
Zach Klonsinski | Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Despite a 62-56 setback Saturday night against No. 2 Virginia at Purcell Pavilion, No. 12 Notre Dame was full of cheer over its winter break.
The Irish (15-2, 3-1 ACC) posted a 5-1 record between semesters, a stint that included a pair of tough ACC victories. Notre Dame prevailed in double overtime against conference foe Georgia Tech at home Jan. 3, and then hung on for a 71-70 win on the road against No. 15 North Carolina less than 48 hours later.Syllabus week will provide anything but a break for the Irish, however, as they travel south for a rematch with Georgia Tech (9-6, 0-3 ACC) again tonight. It will be the first time Notre Dame has had to respond to a loss since falling to Providence, 75-74, on Nov. 23, and the second time the Irish have played the Yellow Jackets in the last 11 days.
“I’ve got the utmost confidence in the leadership of this group,” Irish coach Mike Brey said following the Virginia loss. “Our leadership will not let this linger. We’ll move on quick and be ready to play.”
Georgia Tech gave Notre Dame all it could handle the first time around. The Yellow Jackets led by as many as 11 in the first half, but the Irish drew even late in regulation before taking an early lead in the first overtime period. Senior guard and captain Pat Connaughton had a chance to seal the game late but missed a pair of free throws that left the door open for a Yellow Jacket comeback and a second overtime. Connaughton responded by netting five quick points early in the second extra frame that proved too much for Georgia Tech to overcome.
“The one thing about Pat: he was so mad about the free throws, he’s so competitive that he’s the kind of guy that’s going to answer back and try and win the game,” Brey said after the game.
Free throws again nearly doomed Notre Dame against the Tar Heels. After the Irish started the game 15-of-15 from the stripe, Connaughton and sophomore guard Steve Vasturia both missed a pair of free throws in the final minutes that would have put the game out of reach. Instead, a desperation 3-point shot by preseason All-American junior guard Marcus Paige bounced off the back of the rim to finally decide the outcome.
“I’m proud of our group,” Brey said after the game. “We held off a lot of runs and did what we needed to do to escape, but [it was] a tough situation. I thought we were really poised. Every time they made a run, we came out and executed and gave us a little bit of a cushion, and we needed all that cushion down the stretch.”
The one-point victory over the Tar Heels (12-4, 2-1 ACC) pushed the Irish to 3-0 in conference play for the first time in program history, including their stint in the Big East. The Irish were unable to build on that start, however, against the Cavaliers (15-0, 3-0 ACC), despite winning the rebound and turnover categories. Notre Dame even doubled Virginia’s offensive boards, 16-8.
“A lot of good it did us,” Brey said jokingly after the game. “I’d much rather give up 20 boards and win the game by two or in triple overtime.
“We emphasize [rebounding]. I think we’ll get better at it. I think we’ll learn how to calm that stat down a bit.”
Virginia appeared poised to bury Notre Dame early, jumping out to a 10-point lead in the opening minutes of the first half. The Irish were able to pull back into the game thanks to the play of guard V.J. Beachem, who made his return after missing a stretch of games in December due to a foot injury. The sophomore knocked down three 3-pointers on his way to 12 first-half points to pull his team even and eventually ahead of the Cavaliers going into halftime.
“Guys were finding me and I was sliding into open slots giving me a clean look at the basket,” Beachem said.
In the end the Irish were unable to make shots late, which Connaughton said was credit to a tough Virginia defense that held the nation’s top field-goal shooting team over 20 percentage points below its season average.
“I think it was just a matter of they’re a great defensive team,” Connaughton said. “I think we can learn from what they did on those winning plays that will help us down the stretch.”
The Irish also earned victories over Purdue (Dec. 20 in Indianapolis, 94-63), Northern Illinois (at home, Dec. 22, 91-66) and Hartford (at home, Dec. 30, 87-60) to wrap up non-conference play with a 12-1 record.
The Irish and Yellow Jackets are scheduled to tip off for the second time this season tonight at 7 p.m. at the McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta.