Considering how strong the ACC is this season, it was never in doubt that the ACC-leading Notre Dame Fighting Irish would eventually lose a conference game. Hell, most assumed it would come well before this considering the 4 road games the Irish had to play in their first 6 conference contests.
Last night, ND faced a team who matched its toughness and clutch-ness down the stretch, as the Seminoles hit free throws, forced turnovers, and had enough Rathan-Mayes jumpers in the final minutes to escape with an 83-80 victory in Tallahassee.
So, what can be learned in defeat to a strong opponent on the road?
First, the obvious: Florida State is really, really good
It might go without saying, considering the Seminoles are ranked 10th in the country and boast a record of 17-2 (5-1 ACC), but I can’t stress this enough - FSU is the real freakin’ deal.
Whether it’s freshman sensation Jonathan Isaac looking like a young Kevin Durant out there (23 points, 10 rebounds, 7 blocks, and a sweet jumper to boot) or senior Xavier Rathan-Mayes hitting mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper to keep the Irish comeback at bay, the Seminoles have a long, athletic, talented roster with no glaring weaknesses.
I mean, hell, leading scorer Dwayne Bacon shot just 5 of 13 against ND and had a measly 11 points, and yet the rest of the team compensated, as players like PJ Savoy and CJ Walker and Jarquez Smith stepped up and carried the scoring load.
And don’t get me started on their defense, which took an ND team who averaged just 9 turnovers per game (~6th-best in the country) and forced 18 turnovers. Teams with lots of offense can be scary, but teams that can pair that with scary-good defense (11 blocks and 8 steals as a team against the Irish) are teams that have a legitimate shot at a Final Four.
It’s a major cliche to say this about a talented team, but I’m going to say it anyway: no one is going to want to play Florida State come March. They’re built for a deep tourney run and I’d be surprised if they didn’t come through in that regard.
TJ Gibbs is ready for prime time
He’d already proven to be a key piece of the puzzle for Notre Dame’s bench this year, but Gibbs’ play in the first half kept the Irish in it when the Seminoles were threatening to pull away.
Gibbs scored 11 of his 12 points in a short stretch during that first half and was fearless, cool, and collected as he played in a hostile, NCAA Tournament-esque atmosphere. His length and quickness and ball handling will be huge for the Irish in close games in March, and mentally he’s already there in terms of dealing with the pressure.
The VJ Beachem of the 2016 NCAA Tourney is beginning to refill his veins with ice water
VJ Beachem’s senior season has been up and down, with a strong start brought into question by a slumping middle. However, against a top-10 team on the road on Wednesday night, Beachem was back to his old self, going 4 for 5 from 3-point range and even showing a tiny bit of emotion after a three late in the game that tied it up.
This is the Beachem ND needs, and although he scored just 14 points, those 14 points were huge and his ability to open the floor when making shots is critical for giving the rest of the Irish offense room to operate efficiently.
Notre Dame is mortal from the free throw line
The Irish are still easily one of, if not the best, free throw shooting teams in America. But over the past couple games, ND has had players miss a few down the stretch, showing that even the best fall down sometimes (shout out to me for working Howie Day into my article).
Against Virginia Tech on January 14th, ND shot a dismal 13 of 20 from the charity stripe, and it nearly cost them the game considering the comeback they needed to beat the Hokies in the final minutes. Then, last night, the Irish shot 11 of 15, which is better than the 65% of last Saturday but still falls well short of the team’s 82.8% average.
There’s no need to be alarmed, and Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson did hit some free throws in the waning moments to keep things alive, but Irish fans are now absolutely forced to acknowledge the fact that the Fighting Irish are not some sort of invincible free throw shooting gods.
This Fighting Irish team just refuses to quit and it’s so incredibly enjoyable
Like countless times already this season, the Irish faced a deficit late in the game that seemed to be damning. Florida State went ahead by 8 with about a minute and a half to play, and most teams would have ended up losing that game by 12-15 points due to fouling, forced three-pointers, etc.
Notre Dame is not most teams. The Irish proceeded to outscore the Seminoles 13-8 down the stretch, hitting various layups and connecting on multiple clutch 3-pointers to put themselves in a position that, down 3 with 4 seconds left, they were able to steal the ball and potentially earn a shot at a game-tying look.
Unfortunately, ND failed to even get off a needed 3-point attempt after that steal, but on the road, against a top-10 team who is both fantastic defensively and was hitting all of its biggest shots, the Fighting Irish continued to fight and claw and show that mental toughness Mike Brey loves to talk about.
That’s what great teams do. This Notre Dame team is a great team, and it’s going to be fun to see how far they can make it considering their will to win, their experience in close and big games, and their refusal to be bested by anyone they play.
Considering the football team’s sad state and how unlikable that team can be, Mike Brey’s basketball team represents everything fans could ask for in a group of young men to root for and support. All Notre Dame fans need to make sure they’re following closely the rest of the season, attending games if at all possible, and just enjoying the ride that the basketball team is taking all of us on, because what they’ve got going here is really something special.