“Something was going to give”: Irish find enough offense to get back-to-back ACC wins
Hayden Adams | Monday, February 3, 2020
The Notre Dame men’s basketball team got a much-needed 80-72 win against Georgia Tech Saturday to give them their second home win in the ACC season and their first back-to-back conference wins since 2018.
Head coach Mike Brey gave the credit to his upperclassmen for leading the way to the victory.
“I’m really proud of our seniors,” Brey said. “You talk about setting the tone for us … I thought all three of them really set the tone for us in a very important game.”
Georgia Tech (10-12, 4-7 ACC) got the scoring started with a three-pointer from junior guard Jose Alvarado, but graduate student guard Rex Pflueger would match him with a three of his own to get the Irish (13-8, 4-6 ACC) on the board. After that, though, both teams struggled to find an opening against the other’s defense as they went into the first media timeout tied 5-5.
After returning to action, the Yellowjackets would regain the lead with a baseline dunk, but a long three from senior guard T.J. Gibbs gave Notre Dame their first lead of the game at 8-7. The Irish kept looking to beat Georgia Tech’s zone by bombing threes, with Pflueger hitting a pull-up from the top of the key and sophomore forward Nate Laszewski drilling one in transition.
However, the Irish couldn’t stop Georgia Tech on the other end, giving up close-range baskets that kept the margin close. Georgia Tech’s size continued to give Notre Dame problems throughout the contest, with their duo of towering front court players, junior forward Moses Wright and senior center James Banks III exerting their will on the offensive end.
Yellowjackets head coach Josh Pastner discussed how that has been a focal point of his team’s approach this season.
“One of our big things for this year is about offensive rebounding,” Pastner said. “We did a great job in that category.”
The Yellowjackets grabbed 23 rebounds in the first half, 11 of which were offensive, resulting in 10 second chance points. Even so, neither could gain much of an upper hand — as Georgia Tech dominated inside the paint, the most they could stretch their lead to was a mere four points.
The response for the Irish came from more hot shooting outside the paint. Notre Dame managed to corral Georgia Tech for the remainder of the half and went into the intermission with a 36-33 lead. Senior forward John Mooney discussed the difficulty of facing such a lengthy front court.
“They got some long guys down there, especially Banks and Moses Wright,” Mooney said. “They’re big bodies, they definitely beat us up a little bit on the offensive glass … But again, you got to tip your hat to their athleticism and their length.”
While Georgia Tech held the advantage inside, scoring 20 points in the paint to Notre Dame’s six, the hosts were 6-15 (40%) from three point range, compared to the visitors going 2-8 (25%) in the first half. Pastner complimented the Irish for their ability to get baskets outside the paint.
”We did a good job of taking care of the basketball, and we’ve continued to make good strides on that with only five turnovers,” Pastner said. “[But] the three-point shot’s the equalizer, and as much as we got offensive rebounds and 23 more shot attempts, the three point shot is the equalizer.”
The start of the second half saw the emergence of Mooney. He scored the first eight points of the half for the Irish, knocking down a three and converting an and-1 in the process.
Mooney, who struggled from the free throw line earlier in the season, started out the game 8-8 from the stripe before missing the ninth, making him 15-16 in the last two games after going 7-7 from the stripe in the win over Wake Forest.
“I think [Notre Dame is] just a really, really, really good offensive team, maybe the best offensive team in this league,” Pastner said. “They’re highly skilled, very well coached, and you can’t leave points on the board because they will make you pay for it based on their offensive skill set.”
Absent for the Yellowjackets was sophomore guard and leading scorer Michael Devoe, who has averaged 16.2 points per game in 19 contests this season. Devoe was out with a foot injury that has caused him to miss the last three games.
Notre Dame also managed to neutralize some of the Yellowjackets’ size by tagging Wright with his fourth foul early in the second half. Along with that, Brey opted to run four guards against the Yellowjackets for the offensive advantage it provided them.
“We were praying it would bounce to us on the first miss, and Johnny [Mooney] became, you know, really good in the second half,” Brey said. “We held our own … I feel the last two games, we’re just harder to guard and we can absorb some of that shock.”
As a result of Georgia Tech’s foul situation, Mooney gained a more favorable matchup and continued his hot streak, knocking down a three to match Notre Dame’s biggest lead of the day at 53-48.
With that three pointer, Mooney became the 64th player in Notre Dame history and 25th in the Mike Brey-era to surpass 1000 career points. Reflecting on the milestone postgame, Mooney simply gave thanks to those around him for putting him in the position to succeed.
“It’s a tremendous honor no doubt. I gotta thank my coaches first … and then my teammates,” Mooney said. “These guys find me, so it’s easy when Rex [Pflueger], T.J. [Gibbs] and [sophomore guard] Prentiss [Hubb] are finding you right by the rim to put it in, and they stack up. So it’s a tremendous honor, but my teammates really, and my coaches, help me out.”
After sophomore guard Dane Goodwin drained a three to make it an eight-point game, which put the Irish at 9-21 for the game to that point. Notre Dame stretched the lead to 58-50, but Georgia Tech managed to trim it back down to just a five-point Irish lead.
A baseline fadeaway from Pflueger and a fast break dunk by Mooney gave the Irish their first double digit lead of the game at 65-55 and awakened the Purcell Pavilion crowd. Georgia Tech would continually chip into the lead from there, but the Irish made enough free throws down the stretch to all but seal the result.
Brey said it came down to two conflicting styles grappling, and the Irish got the edge.
“They kept playing big. We kept playing small. Something was going to give at some point,” Brey said. “We got better. We were just better offensively and harder to guard … We’re confident offensively. If we can score 75 and 80, you’re going to have a chance to win every game.”
All that was in question was whether or not Mooney, the second leading rebounder in the nation who also had a game-high 28 points, would get his usual double-double, which he achieved with his tenth rebound with less than a minute remaining. Mooney is tied with William & Mary senior center Nathan Knight for the national lead in double-doubles with 17.
“This is what I love about Mooney,” Pflueger said. “He can always just come out there and once he turns it on, you can just see the switch flip. He becomes more aggressive, more confident in his game. And that’s when we know as a team, we need to find him. Because not only is he a great scorer, but he can also make plays out of the high post or wherever he’s at. And when Mooney’s in that mood, then we’re just in a great spot.”
The Irish will stay in town taking on Pittsburgh in Purcell Pavilion next on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.