If you'd have stopped your average Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball fan on the way out of the JACC last Saturday afternoon after their double overtime victory over Georgia Tech and asked if they'd take a split coming in to the following week of ACC play, nearly every one would have responded with a resounding "yes." The #3 Virginia Cavaliers were able to come in to South Bend Saturday evening and come away with a hard-fought 62-56 victory. It was a very competitive, highly entertaining basketball team. While it was bitterly disappointing to see the Notre Dame's 11 game winning streak come to a close, Virginia proved why they're a legitimate title contender while Notre Dame continues to prove they belong among the ACC elites.
Notre Dame played some spectacular basketball Saturday night. Despite opening the first four minutes slowly, the Irish dug themselves out of an early 16-6 deficit to go in to the locker room with a three point lead at the half. V.J. Beachem provided a big first half spark with continued hot shooting from deep and a very athletic follow-up dunk on the offensive end. Beachem totaled 12 points and 4 boards in 21 minutes of action. Unfortunately for the Irish, Beachem's contribution was limited to the first half. The sophomore was somewhat ineffective in the second half, logging only a steal and offensive rebound in the second 20 minutes.
Tony Bennet's team lived up to much of their defensive billing, but the Irish were finally able to get a little screen and roll game going in the middle of the first half to get Zach Auguste a big dunk and free up Demetrius Jackson. Overall, the Cavaliers did a much better job than any previous opponent hedging ball screens and disrupting the potent Irish screen and roll game. Luckily, Notre Dame started finding drive-and-kick opportunities and movement off the ball to finally start generating some offense. Senior Captain Pat Connaughton had another very solid outing, going 8-15 (4-9 from 3) on the night for 21 points in 38 minutes. The Baltimore Orioles pitcher also grabbed a team high 8 rebounds. Demetrius Jackson was also solid, going 4-10 from the floor (3-6 from deep) for 12 points to go with 6 boards.
It was clear that Virginia wasn't going to let Notre Dame's national and conference player-of-the-year candidate beat them. The Virginia defense constantly shaded to Jerian Grant, and Bennett continuously threw fresh legs and fresh defenders at the ND senior. He finished only 2-8 from the floor and tallied only 6 points. Grant did manage to log another 6 assist night. The Irish can be a good team when Grant isn't shooting well or scoring in bunches. Unfortunately, they're only good in that scenario. To reach the next level and content for a top 3 spot in the ACC and a high seed in post-season play, they need Grant to start warming up and knocking down perimeter shots.
On the interior, it was an up-and-down night for the Irish front-court. Virginia was determined to send a double to the post whenever any of the Irish bigs caught the ball down low. Auguste had only 4 points on his worst shooting night of the year (2-7) and was charged with 4 fouls and 4 turnovers. He started the game a little slowly and didn't finish well, but much like his team overall, there were flashes of greatness in the middle.
That's really the theme for the night. The Irish started a little slowly, then played some beautiful basketball. After taking over 10 minutes to get in to double-figures on the scoreboard, the Irish then went on to score 42 points against one of the country's best defenses over the next 25 minutes. Unfortunately, Virginia showed their mettle down the stretch and turned the screws in the final 4 minutes.
We're so used to seeing Notre Dame pull off these sort of giant-killer performances at home over the years, that it would be easy to feel let down by Saturday night's performance, but a team that won 15 total games last year just played a very competitive game agains the #3 team in the country after beating North Carolina at home on Monday night. (ask Rick Pitino if that's easy). Irish fans need to keep this single data point in perspective. Coach Brey said he had the "this is just a single league game" speech ready either way tonight. This was a hard-fought game with a lot to learn and build on. Virginia absolutely whupped a "JV" Irish squad last year, and this game was nothing like those thrashings. The Irish sit at 15-2 overall and 3-1 in ACC play with a very important trip to Georgia in the coming week.
Four Factors Analysis
Virginia proves why shooting is always the first of the four factors considered. Their ability to hold teams shooting percentage down with their pack-line principles was on full display tonight. Notre Dame managed only 42% eFG, while UVa shot 54% eFG. Notre Dame actually won the other three battles. Our turnover percentage was 10.9% to their 14.5%. Our offensive rebounding percentage was 38.1% to their 29.6%. And our FT rate (FTA/FGA) was 20.3% to their 15.7%. You just can't overcome a 12 point eFG shooting deficit. That 42% eFG is 19 points less than Notre Dame's season average. Virginia can defend. According to the AP report shortly after the game, Notre Dame is the 39th straight team Tony Bennett's squad has held under 50% shooting from the floor.
- Mike Brey used some not-fit-for-OFD language on the sidelines to describe yet another odd timeout call by a set of ACC officials. That was a play that went from a Virginia turnover and Irish ball to a Virginia 3 pointer after they were gifted the ball back by the ACC officiating crew. That's twice this week the ACC crew has hurt the Irish with a terrible timeout call.
- Martinas Geben was the first Irish big off the bench, getting 13 minutes while Austin Torres and Austin Burgett combined for only 7 total minutes. It is clear Brey values the Lithuanian's bulk on the defensive end.
- The best shooting team in America ran up against some out-of-character struggles at home. Notre Dame shot a season low 42% eFG on the evening, going 20-59 overall and 10-24 from deep. Even worse, they went only 6-12 from the line. That was compounded by one of those misses being the front end of a 1-and-1, making it more like 6-13. Hard to swallow a six point loss in which you missed 6 from the charity stripe. This team needs to shake their FT shooting woes ASAP.
- Mark your calendars. On 1/10/2015, Notre Dame out rebounded a team. The Irish won the rebound battle 35-34. Although as Brey said in his presser, I'd rather lose that stat and win the game.
- While I've come around on Brey's offense, I still don't get his clock management. Connaughton hit a huge 3 to tie the game and get the building going with 5:26 remaining and Brey fired off his second-to-last timeout. Virginia made a nice assisted layup on the ensuing possession that they were able to diagram in the huddle. I'll never understand these timeouts after makes.
Mike Brey Press Conference