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Men’s Basketball

Notre Dame comes back from 21-point deficit against Virginia Tech

| Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Irish were able to come back from a 21-point deficit and pull off a second-half comeback over Virginia Tech on Wednesday, advancing to the ACC tournament quarterfinals with a 71-65 victory.

For the second time this season the matchup between the Hokies (21-11, 10-8 ACC) and the Irish (20-13, 8-10) went down to the wire, but this time the Irish were able to enact some revenge on the Hokies by completing their comeback efforts.

Elizabeth Greason | The Observer

Irish senior forward Bonzie Colson looks to pass during Notre Dame’s 73-56 win over Pitt on Feb. 28 at Purcell Pavilion.

Irish head coach Mike Brey attributed his team’s come-from-behind victory to a strong display of toughness in the second half.

“All the stuff they’ve been through, they’re such tough dudes and tonight you saw it. The toughness of hanging on in there. I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of a team in a game that really matters,” Brey said. “In the midst of all the tough stuff, we’ve had unbelievable senior leadership and a great class. They do all the talking in the huddle now. I don’t say a lot in the huddle; I didn’t even have to say much at halftime. … They’ve had ownership over themselves and that helps us in tough moments.”

With their season on the line, the Irish started the game in a back-and-forth battle with the Hokies before a 7-0 run led by sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs and junior guard Rex Pflueger gave the Irish a 15-11 lead with 13:32 remaining in the first half. Notre Dame’s offense would begin to falter as a scoring drought, aided by the Irish settling for 3-pointers and giving up turnovers, allowed the Hokies to go on a 23-6 run to close out the half with a 34-21 lead.

While trailing at the half, the Virginia Tech defense limited senior Bonzie Colson to two points on 1-of-10 shooting from the field.

“I give a lot of credit to Virginia Tech. They really fronted me in the post and made it hard for me to catch [the ball] and go to work down there,” Colson said.

Five minutes into the second half, the Hokies picked up right where they left off in the first half, as their 13-point lead ballooned to 21 points, 47-26, with 15:07 remaining in the game.

However, the Irish found their offense and were able to go on a 9-0 run thanks to three 3-pointers from the Irish to cut the lead to eight 54-46 with 9:07 remaining in the game. Graduate student forward Austin Torres drew a charge and senior guard Matt Farrell went to take the ball from Hokies junior Chris Clarke — aggravating him enough to shove Farrell flying into a group of sideline photographers, earning Clarke a technical foul, creating a palpable momentum shift in favor of the Irish.

“I think [the charge] shifted the momentum a little bit and got us going,” Farrell said. “Guys had more energy in the huddle. We showed our toughness.”

Farrell made two free throws and an additional two free throws from Gibbs brought the trimmed the lead to a manageable four points with 7:45 remaining. Another back-and-forth battle ensued until the Irish brought the lead to just two points with nearly three minutes remaining in the game.

With just over two minutes remaining, a dwindling shot clock forced Colson to shoot a contested 3, which he sunk off the backboard, giving the Irish their first lead of the second half. Strong offensive plays from the Irish and an even stronger defensive performance in the second half, motivated by their desire to keep their bubble team dreams alive, propelled the Irish to a victory, Pflueger said.

“We just don’t start the game off [well],” Pflueger said. “I think that something we need to improve on, but I think it’s just our mentality. We went into halftime just talking about this could be our last game of the season, and everyone took it to heart. We came out there and everyone just dug deep.”

Farrell agreed with Pflueger, saying he believes the team’s offense was a direct result of its defense.

“I think we dug in defensively and that helped us on the offensive end,” Farrell said. “When we defend, I think we can be a very good team. … We were making shots [and] that felt like us on the offensive end, but I think our defense got us the ‘W.’”

Farrell led the way for the Irish scorers with 22 points, five rebounds and five assists. Pflueger added 14 points and nine rebounds, while Gibbs chipped in an additional 13 points.

After defeating the Hokies, the Irish will take on No. 2-seed Duke in the ACC quarterfinals. The Irish lost the regular season matchup against the Blue Devils (25-6, 13-5), but when the two teams met back in January, the Irish were without both Farrell and Colson, resulting in a lopsided Duke victory. Looking ahead to the Thursday matchup, Brey believes that now that that team is at full strength, it has a strong chance to dethrone the current ACC champions and secure a spot in the NCAA tournament.

“I’ve never been a guy to campaign, but I think we really deserve to be in,” Brey said. “I don’t want to hear about one of the best 68. When I have my guys back, we’re a top-20 team, and I think people on that committee know that. I feel strongly that we should be a part of it. We have another great opportunity to end all the drama tomorrow night.”

Tipoff against the Blue Devils will be at 7 p.m. at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.

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