It had been 36 years since the Notre Dame Fighting Irish last beat the Virginia Cavaliers in men’s basketball, with “had been” being the operative words in that clause, as ND beat Virginia handily in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals last night, 71-58.
Tony Bennett’s Wahoos have had Mike Brey’s number since the Irish joined the ACC, beating him 5 out of 5 times, and none of them were really very close.
So with the Irish finally getting that monkey off their back on Thursday night, what did we learn?
This Team’s Peak Defensive Effort is Actually Pretty Impressive
It’s a very common cliché to say that Mike Brey’s Notre Dame squads are always fantastic at offense and bad on defense, and for the most part, that’s proven to be accurate in his 17 years as coach. But occasionally, his teams will crank it up a notch on defense in big moments, and that’s exactly what the Irish did against a team favored to beat them, despite Notre Dame’s superior seed.
Notre Dame held Virginia to a paltry 38.6% shooting from the field and 36.8% from 3-point range, and more importantly, the Irish defense proved it could shut down talented perimeter guys who had been scorching the nets of late.
Entering the game, the media would not stop fawning over Virginia freshmen Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, saying that those two combined with senior guard London Perrantes formed a trio that would just be too much for Notre Dame. The three of them combined for 46 points on 50% shooting yesterday against Pittsburgh.
Rex Pflueger, Steve “White Steve” Vasturia, Matt Farrell, and TJ Gibbs must have taken the media’s foregone conclusion as an offense, because they went out and absolutely shut down the Cavaliers backcourt.
Perrantes, Guy, and Jerome combined to shoot 4-for-24 from the field (2-for-10 from behind the arc), and it was mainly due to Pflueger and Vasturia hounding the guards all evening, with help from Farrell, Gibbs, and sometimes even VJ Beachem, who played a sneakily-good defensive game himself, actively jumping into passing lanes, grabbing rebounds, and just playing with more of an edge on that side of the court than we’re used to seeing from him.
The interior Irish defense was almost as stellar, as Beachem helped out BONZIE COLSON and Martinas Geben, who both did a fantastic job holding their ground, challenging almost all Virginia shots in the paint, and only combining for 3 fouls (the team only had 9 total, which shows you just how clean and fantastic the defensive effort was for ND).
And granted, Virginia isn’t the most high-scoring or offensively-gifted basketball team in the country, but the Cavaliers are 38th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, so what Notre Dame accomplished was certainly something to note.
If Notre Dame can bring that same effort on defense for the remainder of the ACC Tournament and in the NCAA Tournament, they will be able to compete with any team in the country. It was absolutely stupendous.
The Big Four are All Locked In Right Now and the Offense is Humming
All season, Notre Dame has needed at least two of BONZIE COLSON, VJ Beachem, Matt Farrell, and Steve “White Steve” Vasturia to play great games in order to compete with good teams. Sometimes, even that hasn’t been enough.
Against Virginia last night, all four team leaders played marvelous games, as COLSON led the way with another of his patented double-doubles (21 points, 10 rebounds), while Beachem provided 12 points and 7 rebounds, Farrell had 14 points and 4 assists, and Vasturia scored 12 while collecting 5 rebounds and 5 assists.
As I stated above about the defensive effort, if those four guys can all contribute that type of game consistently, there are very few defenses who can stop this offense. We’re talking about 59 combined points on 51% shooting against one of the best defensive teams in the country. Virginia is #1 in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom, they allow an average of just 39% shooting by opponents (good for 11th in the nation), and are first in the country in scoring defense, giving up just 55.1 points per game.
ESPN broadcasters Sean McDonough and Doris Burke were discussing Virginia’s typically-sterling defense and mentioned that only two teams ALL SEASON had shot above 50% against Bennett’s pack line defense. Not only did the Big Four do just that, but ND as a team shot 52.2% overall, and even more impressively, got 56 of those 71 points inside the 3-point arc, which is never easy against that pack line defensive scheme.
So, overall, it was a COMPLETE effort by the Irish in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, and if Mike Brey’s squad can sustain this level of play for a couple weeks and get a favorable draw in the NCAA Tournament, it’s not hard to imagine a third straight Elite Eight appearance (knock on wood 1001x, but you get what I’m saying).
NOTRE DAME WAS THE EDGIER TEAM AND IT WAS AWESOME
Another thing Notre Dame teams rarely seem to be is the meaner, more intense, edgier team on the floor. Notre Dame, especially in basketball, has developed a very clean-cut reputation in recent years based on beautiful offense and a lack of tough defense.
So, I think all Irish fans will agree with me when I say it was an absolute delight to watch BONZIE be BONZIE all over the place, chirping at Tony Bennett and the Virginia bench, and talking MAD SHIT to Mr. Man Bun when BONZIE pulverized his shot in the lane.
A bad word from an Irishman on tv. pic.twitter.com/b2odqxD5PD— Michael Casagrande (@ByCasagrande) March 10, 2017
The video above cuts off before BONZIE screams “THIS IS MY HOUSE” multiple times while glaring at the crowd, but it was very clear and audible to fans at home what BONZIE was saying to Kyle Guy, and it was awesome.
Bonzie Colson swats the crap outta Kyle Guy, turns to the stands and yells "It's my house!" Colson has 16 +10 (19th double-double this year)— Mike McCurry (@Mike_McCurry16) March 10, 2017
I absolutely love this, and love that BONZIE is afraid of no one and completely owns the court when he walks onto it. Doris Burke and Sean McDonough were getting very fussy about BONZIE running too close to Tony Bennett after a made three-pointer early on, but I loved it and think it helped the Irish really take a mental advantage and get into Virginia’s heads. The Irish could use more of that kind of swagger, not less.
BONZIE wasn’t the only one showing some emotion on the court though, as everyone on the team was getting pumped up. We saw Geben throw down a monster slam and give a few screams, we saw VJ Beachem and Steve Vasturia showing a little enjoyment and fire after some big shots (pretty rare for those two, always so stoic), and we saw Matt Farrell be his normal fiery self, eventually leading to a frustrated Virginia player giving him a Flagrant 1 cheap shot near the end of the game.
Farrell voiced his displeasure with the foul, and then BONZIE strode up, chirping more, almost certainly promising to destroy Mamadi Diakite if he ever even looked at Farrell the wrong way again. It was great to see teammates standing up for each other, and it was magnificent to see the fight ND had in them, from start to finish.
Overall, it was just a lot of fun to see the fire and the edge from this team, as we knew they are mentally tough and have an incredible desire to win, but we haven’t always seen them wear it on their sleeve. These last few weeks of watching them is going to be an absolute blast, and I can’t wait to see who BONZIE owns next, who Beachem tries to dunk on, and who Matt Farrell and White Steve will make look foolish with their dribble-drives.