Irish squander lead to Hokies, beat Howard in MLK Classic
Liam Coolican | Wednesday, January 19, 2022
Notre Dame squandered a double-digit second-half lead Saturday night at Virginia Tech, and nearly let another game slip through their fingers Monday afternoon, but instead held on for a narrow victory over Howard in the MLK Classic.
The Irish (11-6, 4-2 ACC) had won six straight games prior to their matchup with Virginia Tech (9-7, 1-4 ACC) and in the second half, led by as many as 10 points but couldn’t hold on for victory.
Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey credited the Hokies’ raucous fans for supporting their team throughout the contest.
“What a great atmosphere,” he said after the game. “I thought the Virginia Tech crowd kept their team believing the whole time.”
Graduate student forward Paul Atkinson Jr. led the Irish with 19 points and 9 rebounds, but he fouled out with just over a minute to play and the game tied at 73. The Hokies would go on to score the final six points of the contest to win 79-73.
The Irish struggled all night to contain Virginia Tech forwards Justyn Mutts and Keve Aluma. The two combined for 41 points and 15 rebounds.
“The two big guys are relentless,” Brey said of the pair. “They’re really good and physical and athletic, and they’re just hard to guard one on one.”
Brey said afterwards that the game plan had been to leave Atkinson and senior forward Nate Laszewski to defend inside without much help in order to limit the Hokies’ three-point shooting. Things did not go as planned and Virginia Tech made 10 of 20 shots from behind the arc.
“I don’t know if we did a very good job of either [defending inside or limiting three-pointers] today,” he said.
Notre Dame led by 8 at halftime and took a 10 point lead, their biggest of the contest, with just under 15 minutes after an Atkinson layup. Virginia Tech then began to chip away. The Hokies took their first lead since the opening two minutes with just under six to play, and the Irish wasted numerous opportunities to win in the final minutes; they missed three free throws in the final 90 seconds, including two from senior guard Cormac Ryan with 47 seconds to go that would have tied the game.
The Irish then traveled to Washington, D.C. to face Howard University, one of the nation’s most famous historically Black universities, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The game was supposed to be played a year ago, but was canceled due to the pandemic.
Brey and Howard head coach Kenny Blakeney have a long history. Brey recruited Blakeney as a player while Brey was an assistant coach at Duke, and Blakeney later served on his staff at Delaware. Leading up to the scheduled game last year, the two teams worked together and attended workshops in order to get more people registered to vote.
“It’s an honor to be on an HBCU campus, a prestigious university in Howard, and to be in that setting,” Brey said Friday prior to the road trip. “I think it’s a great educational opportunity for our players; I think it’s an unbelievable message for our University.”
The Irish were favored by double digits heading into the contest but Howard (6-8, 0-1 MEAC) proved to be a formidable opponent. Brey said it was a challenge to play another game less than 48 hours after the loss to Virginia Tech.
“I was very worried about today, physically and mentally, for us, because we invested a lot in Blacksburg in a really physical game,” he said after the contest.
Howard’s Burr Gymnasium, with a capacity of just 2,700 people, creates a difficult atmosphere for opposing teams.
“This atmosphere was as good as any ACC road atmosphere as far as [being] hard on the visiting team,” Brey said. The last Power 5 team to visit Howard was Oregon State in 2010.
Laszewski paced the Irish with 17 points and 13 rebounds. Early in the second half, Brey elected to move to a smaller lineup with only one forward, and Laszewski played the majority of the second half.
“I’m proud of him. He was an anchor defensively, he was a pressure release and scored for us; he played with a will to win,” Brey said of Laszewski’s performance.
Senior guard Dane Goodwin added 17 points as well for the Irish, and freshman guard Blake Wesley added 13, including back-to-back fast-break dunks in the first half which fired up the bench. Wesley passed Troy Murphy for the most games scored in double digits as a freshman for the Irish.
The Irish and Bison went back and forth for much of the conference, with neither team able to establish a big lead. Back-to-back buckets from Wesley gave the Irish an 11-point lead with three minutes to play, but Howard’s full-court press made it difficult for Notre Dame in the final minutes, causing multiple turnovers and allowing the Bison to climb back into the contest.
Howard cut the lead to just a point with 35 seconds remaining, but on the subsequent possession, as he so often does, senior guard Prentiss Hubb came up with a basket when the team needed one most. Howard had a chance to tie at the buzzer, but the Irish escaped with the 71-68 victory.
Next up, the Irish take on Louisville in Kentucky on Saturday afternoon, before returning to South Bend for a three-game home stand.