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Men’s Basketball

Irish unable to earn needed victory over No. 19 Hokies with conference regular season winding down

| Monday, February 25, 2019

After suffering another conference loss to No. 19 Virginia Tech (21-6, 10-5 ACC) on Saturday, Notre Dame (13-14, 3-11 ACC) fell further in jeopardy of not getting either an NCAA or NIT bid for just the second time in Mike Brey’s 19th season as Irish head coach.

The Irish have officially fallen below .500 for the second time in the Mike Brey era, the only other occasion being when Notre Dame fell to 15-16 en route to finishing the 2013-2014 season 15-17.

Saturday afternoon’s contest was all Hokies from the start, as Virginia Tech jumped out to a 14-4 lead eight minutes in and led for the entire game on their way to a 67-59 victory. The Hokies entered the game sixth in the ACC Standings after losing three of their last five, but a half-game back from being tied for fourth. Hokies head coach Buzz Williams and company will cap off the regular season against three more ACC opponents, taking on the likes of No. 1 Duke, No. 16 Florida State and Miami (FL).

Annie Smierciak | The Observer

Irish junior T.J Gibbs scans the court during Notre Dame’s 82-55 loss to Virginia on Jan. 26 at Purcell Pavilion.

Redshirt junior forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. led the way for Virginia Tech, finishing with 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the field to go along with 14 rebounds and three assists. Freshman guard Isaiah Wilkins also provided the Hokies with good minutes off the bench, scoring eight points and grabbing seven rebounds.

The Hokies, who are still without senior point guard Justin Robinson, have been leaning on Blackshear more and more for production on both ends of the floor as the season progresses. Robinson, who is the active ACC leader in career assists, has been sidelined since suffering a left-foot injury in a game against Miami (FL) on Jan. 30. The win moved Virginia Tech to 4-3 without Robinson who was averaging 14.4 points and 5.5 assists per game at the time of his injury.

After the game, Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams noted that Blackshear, “has become so integral to literally every single thing we do on both ends.”

For the Irish, junior forward John Mooney recorded his 17th double-double of the season, finishing with 12 points on 5-10 shooting from the field, and 10 rebounds.

“I think he’s the most improved player in the league, I don’t even think it’s close,” Williams said of Mooney in a postgame press conference.

Junior guard T.J. Gibbs, who has been hot for the Irish as of late, was Notre Dame’s leading scorer, netting 18 total points for the game. Freshman forward Nate Laszewski also added productive minutes off of the bench and finished with 12 points in the contest.

“We’re not getting the results that we’d like, but we’re growing within that. … At the same time this team has shown that we can play with a lot of teams; almost anybody in the country,“ Gibbs said following the game. “We just got to be resilient, we’re not gonna fold, we’re not gonna bust, just gotta keep playing.”

Gibbs said he’s been trying to play more within himself since the start of his recent scoring tear, and is keeping the mindset that, “if one doesn’t fall, the next one will.”

While freshman guard Prentiss Hubb didn’t have the best scoring game for Notre Dame — shooting just 1-of-8 from the field — he recorded his 100th assist of the season as a freshman. Brey has reiterated time and time again how well Hubb has come along in terms of his development as a floor general and the main ball handler for the Irish.

“I know he didn’t score today or shoot it well, but the guy has been unbelievable for us. I mean he’s basically become our point guard … we can’t ask much more out of Prentiss Hubb,” Brey said. “The guy is a fighter, a battler, he’s got an amazingly bright future.”

Other bright spots for the Irish, despite the loss, came in terms of their defense and foul shooting. Notre Dame was able to force 16 turnovers, 11 of which came in the first half, and held the Hokies to just 67 total points, roughly seven points below their normal average of 74.4 points per game on 36.5 percent shooting (19-of-52). Meanwhile, the Irish shot 15-16 from the charity stripe, ultimately keeping them to stay in the game with the Hokies. Brey was pleased with the way his team play defensively, holding an “explosive team in check,” but noted that second chance points hurt Notre Dame’s chances for success.

Notre Dame struggled on the boards, and ultimately the Irish were outrebounded 49-27. Virginia Tech was able to corral 18 offensive rebounds that led to 15 points, while the Irish ended up finishing with 18 total defensive rebounds.

Williams spoke highly of Brey, and what Brey has meant to him as a coach as well as Notre Dame sports overall.

“In respect to coach [Brey], he’s my hero, and I tell him that every time I see him. … I also have so much admiration for how he handles his position,“ Williams said. “I think football means a lot at Notre Dame and I don’t think that there could be a better ambassador for the basketball program and the athletic department than him. … I think our society needs more of him because I think he’s changing kids’ lives because he always speaks hope.”

Williams said Brey was one of hundreds of coaches that he reached out to on a consistent basis when he was first trying to get into the coaching business, and one of the only ones who always took the time to answer.

Brey said he also held Williams in high esteem.

“I’m really proud of [Williams],” he said. “ … I respect the coach that he is.”

Looking ahead, the Irish will take on a physical and experienced Florida State team, who is coming off of a loss to No. 8 UNC, on the road on Monday night before finishing up the season with No. 18 Louisville, Clemson and Pittsburgh. While it hasn’t been the prettiest of seasons for Notre Dame basketball, Brey said he likes how is young guys are battling and improving every day, and the future certainly is bright.

Tip-off in Tallahassee, Florida, is scheduled for Monday at 7 p.m.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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