The Fighting Irish traveled to Blacksburg, Virginia to take on Coach Buzz Williams’ Virginia Tech Hokies in a sold out - and loud - Cassell Coliseum on Saturday afternoon.
The first half saw a much better shooting performance from the Irish than in the past few games. Defense has not been a strong suit for the Hokies; opponents are shooting 48 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three on the year. In the first half, Notre Dame took advantage, shooting 56 percent from the floor and 50 percent from behind the arc. Steve Vasturia was especially effective with 12 points, three boards and three assists in that first half.
Behind the strong performances from Vasturia and Bonzie Colson, the Irish led by 19 at the under-eight timeout. Coming out of that timeout, however, Virginia Tech morphed into the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats. The Hokies would end the half on a 17-6 run, leaving Notre Dame with just an eight-point lead. Normally, you would feel good going into the locker room up by eight on the road, but the last seven minutes of the first half were rather dicey for the Irish. The eight-point lead felt lucky.
The second half started much like the first ended, with Virginia Tech playing well and Notre Dame doing its best to maintain a lead. Enter TJ Gibbs, who would contribute some instant offense off the bench. Two straight Gibbs layups forced a Virginia Tech timeout with 14:11 left in the game. The Irish would threaten to take control down the stretch, but the Hokies continued to hang in the game, just in range.
As an aside, there were a lot of plays in which I have simply no idea what happened throughout the afternoon, including plays in the stretch in which Virginia Tech pulled themselves back into the game. If we have to tolerate jumping between streams and networks during the game due to blackouts and “unavailable streams”, you can at least give us replays, ACC Network. Not to mention the fact that we had to watch entire possessions from a camera that seemed like it was at the scorer’s table.
As is customary for Notre Dame basketball, multiple double digit leads did not last. The Hokies battled back, taking a 67-66 lead with 1:44 left in the game. A Matt Farrell layup would reclaim a Notre Dame lead, and a Virginia Tech turnover followed. VJ Beachem showed his face on the subsequent possession with a lay-in, putting the Irish up by three. Matt Farrell then pulled off my favorite move of the season so far. As Virginia Tech rolled the ball up the court to save time, Farrell looked away as if to get instructions from the bench. Then he dove on the ball. Hero.
The TV Ted Valentine Show rounded out the game, but it didn’t matter. With a 76-71 victory, Notre Dame had snapped yet another winning streak; the Hokies had won 15 straight at home coming into this one.
TJ Gibbs continues to show why the Irish faithful are so high on his future running this team. Before the season, I pegged the emergence of Matt Farrell as a serviceable-at-best point guard to the best case scenario for both the success of the team and the career of TJ Gibbs. Right now, Farrell is to Gibbs what Jerian Grant was to Demetrius Jackson when he was a freshman. Farrell shoulders the load of running the offense full time, which has let Gibbs figure things out on his own time. Even so, Gibbs has figured it out pretty quickly. He’s a good fit.
A final takeaway: Buzz Williams is a good coach. Many of us knew this already after witnessing his success in the Big East with Marquette. But his coaching chops were on display in this one; one of my favorite things to watch in all of basketball is the possession following a timeout. The Hokies got great looks out of timeouts on offense, and forced Notre Dame into some tough shots on defense. The Hokies missed on a few of those really good looks, but if you’re a Virginia Tech fan, you’ll take that.
If you’re Notre Dame, you have to focus on putting together a full performance against Florida State on Wednesday. Can’t keep getting away with these sort of games.