Irish grind out win over Panthers, set for important matchup with Hokies
Benjamin Padanilam | Wednesday, March 7, 2018
Needing a few wins to situate itself as a bubble team for the NCAA tournament, Notre Dame started its week with a Tuesday afternoon matchup with Pittsburgh, hoping to jumpstart a run in the ACC tournament against a team that went winless in conference play this season.
But after a 9:19 stretch of play in the second half without a field goal made from the floor, the Irish (19-13, 8-10 ACC) suddenly found themselves in a 48-45 game with the Panthers (8-24, 0-18) with nine minutes remaining in the game.
And when Notre Dame pulled away again, pushing the lead to 61-50, the Irish offense once again faltered — Pittsburgh responded with an 11-2 run to bring the game to 63-61 with 48 seconds remaining a game, and the Irish would go on another extended field-goal drought, this time failing to hit a shot from the floor over the last 6:58.
Despite those offensive struggles, the Irish still found a way to pull out a 67-64 win over the Panthers.
“We didn’t really play the way we wanted to offensively,” Irish senior guard Matt Farrell said. “But we defended well enough to win, which is a really good sign for us, and if we want to go far in this tournament, we have to defend.”
The Irish were able to squeak out the win behind their success at the foul line in the second half; despite a 4-for-24 shooting performance from the field in the period, the Irish picked up 22 points from the foul line on 25 attempts. Irish senior forward Bonzie Colson led the with an 8-for-8 effort from the line in the half — despite going just 1-for-8 from the floor — on his way to a game-high 19 points, while the starting guards — Farrell, junior Rex Pflueger and sophomore T.J. Gibbs — all converted at least four foul shots on their way to the other double-digit scoring performances for the Irish in the contest.
“That was the difference in the game,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said of the team’s second-half performance from the charity stripe. “We got to the bonus quick — we got to double bonus quicker than we’ve gotten to it all year — and we’re really good from the line. It’s a great weapon for us. … It won the game for us, getting there and then making them.”
“Obviously, the difference was our inability to keep them off the foul line,” Panthers head coach Kevin Stallings said. “To hold them to four field goals in the second half is a tremendous accomplishment for our group defensively. … We’re disappointed with the outcome of the game.”
In the first half, it appeared as though the Irish would come away with an easy victory, holding Pittsburgh to just 28 percent shooting from the floor and a 3-for-16 mark from 3-point range, while shooting 48 percent from the floor themselves to build a 36-24 halftime cushion.
But it proved to be a cushion they would need every bit of. As a result, Colson played 33 minutes in just his third game back in action since missing 15 games with a broken left foot, while all three starting guards played at least 37 minutes. Despite the level of energy his team expended in this one, Brey said he’s not worried about the group coming out tired Wednesday against Virginia Tech, saying Colson won’t be on any minutes restriction and touting the time on the court as a positive.
“I’m not concerned. I think these guys needed to play here,” Brey said. “This group — again, the starting group, because [Colson] had been out, hadn’t played as much together. So I think it helps in that they get to play together.”
And the adversity such a close contest against an opponent that was expected to be weak on paper brought is neither new for the group or unexpected for the conference tournament, Farrell said.
“We feel we’ve gone through more adversity than anybody in the country,” he said. “But our guys have fought hard all year, and I think it’s made us mentally tough. We know a lot of games down here are going to come down to game situations, just like today, and that’s things we practice, so we just need to stay calm and do what we do.”
Now, having advanced to Wednesday’s second round, the Irish will take on the Hokies (21-10, 10-8), who earned a bye for the first round as the tournament’s No. 7 seed. In their only matchup this season, Virginia Tech topped Notre Dame, 80-75, at Purcell Pavilion on Jan. 27, though the Irish were without either Colson or Farrell. Despite the reinforcements this time around, Brey said he still expects the Hokies to be as much a challenge as they were when they last met.
“Virginia Tech is really hard to defend, and we’re going to have to be good offensively tomorrow because you’re not just going to stop them,” Brey said. “I really have a lot of respect for them, and it’s a great challenge for us the way they spread you out with guards and the way they shoot the ball.”
For Notre Dame, the matchup stands as a must-win, as the Irish are currently considered a team that is on the cusp of the bubble who could truly bolster their chances with another win against a team already expected to make the field of 68.
However, that’s a conversation Notre Dame is not having right now. Instead, it is keeping its focus on playing within itself and to the best of its ability, letting the rest take care of itself.
“That’s not what we’re focusing on,” Colson said of the tournament implications for Wednesday’s game. “ … We’re focusing on getting the win tomorrow and doing what we have to do to get the win. And we still got to stick with our habits on both sides of the floor and do what we do: share the ball, defend and get stops.
“But the future will happen with the tournament. That’s not what we’re focusing on right now.”
The Irish and Hokies will tip off Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.