Conference wins are certainly never a guarantee in the ACC, but sometimes those wins can be more frustrating than some of the losses.
That was certainly the case Wednesday night, as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (21-3, 9-2) turned in a very disappointing second half en route to a surprisingly close victory over the Boston College Eagles (9-12, 1-8). The Irish were leading by double-digits for most of the game's 40 minutes but were never able to put the Eagles away as they had done plenty of other over-matched opponents this season.
Notre Dame stormed out and put the Eagles in a big hole early, leading by 20 just 12 minutes into the game. Boston College did not hit double-digits until just under five minutes remaining in the first half. Only threes on back-to-back possessions to end the half, one of which was a running half-court prayer, kept the Eagles within 20 at the break.
Despite a very successful first half, the story was quite different for the Irish after the break. Though they kept the Eagles down by double-digits for the majority of the half, they never hit a 20-point margin at any point, reflecting their inability to kick into another gear and let the coaches empty the benches.
Boston College miraculously was able to put the outcome in doubt late in the game, largely behind some near-heroics from their underrated star, Olivier Hanlan. Hanlan hit four straight three-point attempts to shrink the Irish lead to as few as six with just under two minutes left.
Though Notre Dame ultimately emerged victorious, the second half was not a good look for a team coming off a loss and still firmly in the race for the ACC title. They particularly struggled offensively, converting just nine field goals and going ice cold from the free throw line.
Perhaps what made this one so disappointing was the way they jumped out early on the Eagles, something they had failed to do many times against sub-par opponents, especially on the defensive end where their intensity and active hands led to poor shot selection and plenty of turnovers from Boston College. To turn in such a lackluster second half felt like a major letdown for a tenth-ranked team at home.
All that said, the Irish were still able to emerge from this one almost stress-free, other than a suddenly-anxious last couple minutes. This was largely behind the trio of Jerian Grant (17 points, 7 assists), Zach Auguste (16 points on 7 of 11 shooting), and Steve Vasturia (17 points on 7 of 9 shooting). Demetrius Jackson added a game-high 10 rebounds on an otherwise poor night for the sophomore.
The Eagles were led, of course, by Hanlan, who had 28 points on 11 of 16 shooting on a night when his team had absolutely nothing else to turn to offensively. He was the most impressive player on the floor in this one. His only other teammate to join him in double-digits was Aaron Brown, who needed 14 shots to get to his 13 point tally.
Notre Dame will need a much better 40 minute effort on Saturday afternoon when it heads to Cameron Indoor Stadium to take on the Duke Blue Devils (19-3, 6-3), who looked unimpressive themselves Wednesday night in a narrow home win over Georgia Tech. Much like the matchup last Wednesday, this is a monumental game for both teams jockeying near the top of the ACC standings and otherwise looking to solidify excellent NCAA Tournament seeds. The game is at 1pm EST on CBS.
Other Thoughts and Observations
- There was a lot of ball-watching on defense in the second half. I know JoeSchu has one whipping boy in particular, but V.J. Beachem, Bonzie Colson, Auguste, and Connaughton were all guilty of it near the basket. Night and day compared to an excellent defensive first half.
- Seven guys played. Get used to it. I would imagine practices are easing up in intensity as the season progresses to March, for whatever that is worth.
- Vasturia is excellent using the glass on his shot near the paint. He had an absolutely Duncan-esque mid-range jumper in the first half. It's a lost art in basketball for the most part, but he's got it.
- Complaining about the 21st win of the season in the first week of February is pretty great.
- Jim Christian's got some work to do in Chestnut Hill. Hanlan is the only player that looked like a top half of the ACC quality starter tonight, and looking at their record, there's probably a reason for that. His recruiting so far is not at the level of some of the other new coaches like Buzz Williams and Danny Manning, but he needs to upgrade the talent somehow, and in a hurry.
- I'm not sure why there is so much consternation when the ball goes into the post to Auguste. He has very impressive footwork and a nice array of moves, and his efficiency really speaks for itself. Colson seems to have him already on sharp passes to create for teammates, but that might be the last piece of a nice little puzzle for Auguste offensively, particularly when looking ahead to next season.
- The free throw shooting was absolutely horrendous at 11 of 19 including at least 3 missed front-ends of one-and-ones by my count. That was just dreadful to watch.
- I said to the other OFD staff behind the scenes that it did not look like they were taking BC seriously early on, but then they cruised out to a 20-point lead and great first half. But the second half sure makes it seem like the focus was not quite there on the evening.
- Saturday's game is a major, major opportunity for this team yet again. It would go a long way towards a top 3 ACC finish, which would do wonders for conference tournament seeding when you project quarterfinal matchups minus Syracuse's participation. A win keeps this team on a plane no one thought was possible before the season. A loss dips this team into a still-excellent top 15 position but one that gets a little more dicey when thinking about postseason seeding.