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Notre Dame Basketball

Confounding consistency: Irish again struggle in ACC Tournament, await NCAA Tourney fate

March 10, 2022
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Credit Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish have shown remarkable, if underwhelming, consistency in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in recent years.

They remain a non-factor on the weekends, and they continue to pile up head-scratching, at times downright embarrassing, losses in the league’s annual end-of-season event.

Add Thursday’s 87-80 loss to No. 7 seed Virginia Tech into the equation.

Inside Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, the Irish (22-10) never led, actually never even tied the contest once scoring began, and trailed for 39 minutes, 30 seconds.

“Well, we dug ourselves a heck of a hole and I think you’ve got to give Virginia Tech credit (for that almost game-long deficit),” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. “I’m very impressed by them. They’ve been a tough matchup for us lately.”

It gets worse: in trailing by as many as 16 points on multiple instances in the first half, Notre Dame notched its fourth-straight ACC Tournament loss in which it trailed by 16 or more points. The Irish’s four ACC tournament-ending losses in the last four completed events have been by a combined 89 points, with the previous three losses by 42 (UNC, ’21), 22 (Louisville, ’19) and 18 (Duke, ’18).

Their last semifinals appearance was the 22-point loss to the Cardinals four tournaments ago, and they last advanced to the finals in 2016-17.

Unlike previous squads with this nucleus of players, whose seasons emphatically ended whenever that final ACC Tournament defeat unfolded, this group has positioned itself to at least be relevant come Selection Sunday.

Brey has touted his team’s second-place regular-season ACC finish and overall body of work, with a great win against Kentucky and several other middling triumphs to its credit.

“I’m extremely proud of this group because Selection Sunday a year ago they were at my house and we watched the show, and that was kind of a miserable day,” said Brey, who is trying to end a five-year NCAA Tournament drought. “It was a 365-day countdown to get back to be part of Selection Sunday, and that they’ve done it is pretty cool.”

Bracketologists and NCAA metrics, however, have the Irish decidedly in the range of teams likely to at least break a sweat as CBS unveils the brackets in less than 72 hours. Notre Dame is projected around a 10- or 11-seed and could be squeezed further onto the bubble, or potentially even into one of the First Four games early-week in Dayton, Ohio, pending outcomes of the myriad tournaments still unfolding across the sport.

Still, they maintained confidence after losing to the Hokies (21-12) for the second time this season and saw Tech coach Mike Young improve to 4-1 in five ACC meetings against Brey.

“I think we’re going to be focused and hungry and it does make you feel better that you will have another crack at it,” said senior guard Cormac Ryan, who finished with 20 points, five boards and didn’t commit a turnover in 34 minutes. “And we’re going to, obviously it’s a very tough loss, but if anything, it will definitely put a little fire in our belly, which I don’t think is a bad thing.”

The Hokies had eight players score in the first half – twice as many as the Irish – and led by double digits at the first media timeout, 14-4, and by as many as 16 on five different occasions in the frame, the last 42-26. Brey opted not to start Dane Goodwin, the All-ACC selection and the only Irish player to have started each of the preceding 31 games this season.

Goodwin was then promptly held scoreless in the first half, even as he entered the contest barely three minutes after opening tip.

Still, the Irish mustered a 5-0 jog to the half and had a chance to further whittle away at their deficit, but, symbolic of the opening half, committed the last of their 10 first-period turnovers on their last possession before the break.

Prentiss Hubb had 13 of his game-high 23 in the opening half, and the senior guard converted four of six field-goal attempts and four of five free throws; the remainder of Hubb’s Notre Dame teammates were an eye-gouging five-for-15 from the floor.

Goodwin scored all 11 of his points in the second half, Blake Wesley was limited to nine points on two-for-eight shooting and three turnovers in 21 minutes.

The Irish got as close as 79-75 late, but the Hokies converted eight-straight free throws in the final 46 seconds. 

Tech’s bench also outscored Notre Dame 15-0 in the opening half, as Sean Pedulla cooked the Irish for 11 points in 10 minutes.  

The Hokies, though technically outscored 38-32 by the Irish in the paint, nonetheless deployed the Keve Aluma-Justyn Mutts tandem to absolute surgical precision. The duo combined for 31 points, 12 boards and three blocked shots.

Pedulla finished with 13, Nahiem Alleyne 12 and Storm Murphy added 16.

It was Murphy’s late-game triples – both as the shot-clock wound near zero and after the Irish had pulled within single digits – that wholly ensured Notre Dame’s ongoing ACC Tournament misery.

“He’s a winner; he’s a big-time winner,” Brey said of Murphy. “He has led them, and he made a big one (Wednesday) night (in Tech’s overtime-win against Clemson). When he made the one up top against our zone …  then the double-pump one, that’s the nail in the coffin, basically.”

Now, with control wrested from their hands for the sport’s final weekend before March Madness, the Irish await to see if merely their weekend or their NCAA Tournament aspirations were buried under the Hokies’ win.

“Well, I’ve got them coming to my house Sunday night,” Brey said. “We’ll see what our destiny is, and I’m excited about us moving forward.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape. I guess we’ll find out Sunday.”

 
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