Matt Farrell, Rex Pflueger notch career-bests to lead Irish past Seminoles
Benjamin Padanilam | Monday, February 12, 2018
When Notre Dame beat Boston College on Tuesday, it gave the Irish their first win in exactly one month, snapping a seven-game losing streak.
Against Florida State on Saturday, they made sure the gap between wins this time around wasn’t nearly as large.
Just as with Tuesday’s win, the Irish (15-10, 5-7 ACC) put together a largely complete performance against the Seminoles (17-8, 6-7) — for the second consecutive game, they held the lead for over 37 minutes and never trailed in the second half.
And just as with Tuesday’s win, the Irish rode the play of its guards en route to pushing a nail-biter into a comfortable win at home. Senior Matt Farrell and junior Rex Pflueger both scored career-highs with 28 and 19, respectively, and sophomore T.J. Gibbs added 19 of his own to propel Notre Dame to an 84-69 victory.
“That’s just the way we play. I love playing with these guys,” Gibbs said of the trio’s performance. “When I’m on the court with these guys, I feel like I’m at the top of the world because they can do so much with the ball and they look for me and find me. When I have the ball, I can look for them and find them. Feeding off of their energy on the offensive and defensive end is something I look forward to. … Having these guys by my side is something special, and I love it.”
For much of its losing streak, Notre Dame was either without Farrell or with him in a limited form as he played through a bone bruise to his ankle. But after 19 points in Tuesday’s win, Farrell seemed to be rounding back into form. And that continued Saturday, as he started off the scoring with a 3, broke a 15-15 tie with 8:48 remaining in the first half that held for the next 18 minutes of game play and scored the go-ahead layup with 8:17 left in the second half to put Notre Dame up for good.
“I’m there, I’m 100 percent,” Farrell said of his ankle. “It’s a little lingering, but it feels much better, and my lift on my jump shot is much better.”
“He has a great edge about him, and that edge helps us believe,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said of Farrell. “ … Him back — along with T.J. and Rex, who certainly have it as well — they set a great tone. Matt keeps us confident, and he was due. … We’re out of the injury zone now, and the guy’s feeling good.”
But it wasn’t just Farrell, who finished 10-of-15 from the floor and 6-of-10 from 3, hitting timely shots for the Irish. After the Seminoles scored a basket with 10:31 left in the first half to take a 13-12 lead, Pflueger responded with one of his two 3s in the game on the next possession to bring a swift end to the deficit just 22 seconds after it had come — the only 22 seconds the Irish would trail all game. And after starting 1-for-11 in the contest, Gibbs finished 4-for-5 from the floor down the stretch to help push the Irish to a 28-13 advantage over the final 8:17 to turn a tie game into a 15-point win — the second straight game the Irish have had such a close-out stretch.
“We’ve played two games where it’s got interesting in the second half and we’ve made big shots — assassin-like shots — which is who this program has been,” Brey said of the timely scoring by his guards. “We didn’t see it much there in January, but that makes me feel good and makes me feel like we’ve got a shot at this thing.”
“You can attribute it to the older guys on our team, the veterans that have been around,” Pflueger said of the team’s ability to close the last two wins out. “ … We have a lot of experience in close games, and once we got out of that losing streak with the win against Boston College, I think we were starting to feel ourselves again.”
Yet, while the offensive performances of the guards catalyzed the team, it was their defense which the Irish credited for the win — they held the Seminoles to just 36.8 percent shooting in the second half and forced 12 turnovers in the game, including four during the close out stretch over the final 8:17.
“I thought the key tonight was how we defended,” Brey said. “I thought we really defended them well — they average 80 in league play — and I thought our big guys on ball screens, all four of them, were really attentive to detail.”
“We were preaching about defense at every single media timeout,” Farrell said. “That helps us — when we defend and get stops, that gets us going in transition and helps us move. We thought if we could get stops on them in our half-court defense, it would kind of demoralize them, and I think sometimes it did. They had trouble scoring against our half-court defense.”
The Irish had been hoping Tuesday’s win would create some much needed momentum, and they felt that momentum carry through the week’s practices and Saturday’s win, which has the Irish trending upwards as it leaves Purcell Pavilion with two wins this week and heads into Monday’s road matchup with No. 21 North Carolina.
“That whole game in its entirety was just such a big push for us,” Pflueger said of Tuesday’s win. “To see the ball going in, everybody sharing the ball, big guys playing well, running the floor, playing great defense, blocking out, getting rebounds — we needed one of those games, especially to end that losing streak.
“But I think that game really propelled us into this game, and I think the confidence for everyone on this team is really off the charts right now.”
And after falling just 69-68 at Purcell earlier this season to the Tar Heels (19-7, 8-5), Notre Dame believes it can ride that confidence to avenge itself Monday at 7 p.m. in the Smith Center — especially since it will have its floor general back to lead the way, as Farrell sat out the Jan. 13 loss.
“On the back nine, we’re 2-1,” Farrell said. “That’s what we keep saying, and we got to take one game at a time, inch our way back. We have a really good opportunity on Monday to beat a really good team.”