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ND Basketball vs. Virginia Tech, Detailed Recap: Fighting Irish Leave Nothing in the Tank, but Chris Clarke Had Leftover Fuel

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Despite a gutsy performance and another exhausting effort, the Irish come up short once again as Chris Clarke and the Hokies did just enough to win this one down the stretch

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

For the 5th game in a row, a shorthanded Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball team fought tooth-and-nail to overcome limitations and talent gaps and short-bench-induced fatigue, but still came up short.

The Irish had lost 4 consecutive single-digit-deficit games heading into last night’s showdown with the Virginia Tech Hokies, having lost by 7 at Georgia Tech, by 1 and 4 at home against North Carolina and Louisville, and by 9 at Clemson a week ago.

Without BONZIE COLSON, Matt Farrell, and DJ Harvey, the Irish looked to be severely outclassed in this one early on, but staged a gutsy rally to put themselves in a position to tie it or take the lead in the final minute. Unfortunately, ND just couldn’t get over the hump, and the Hokies walked away with a nice road win to follow up a huge home victory over then-#10 North Carolina last week.

So as not to belabor the point any further, below is my firsthand account of another heart-wrenching loss for a young, injury-decimated squad that keeps coming back again and again in search of a big ACC win.

Pregame

I arrived roughly half an hour before tip-off, and the arena was slowly beginning to fill out with fans. The atmosphere was noticeably not electric, and that wasn’t surprising given the 4-game losing streak and the recent announcement that ND would be without its two best players once again with Matt Farrell being ruled out indefinitely.

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The one area of the arena that looked promisingly full and lively was the student section, as when I arrived the lower sections of the Leprechaun Legion’s domain were full, with the upper seats beginning to fill up as well. God bless those students, as they were the reason Purcell had any life at all throughout this game.

As the teams warmed up, the video board tossed up some fun facts about walk-on guard Liam Nelligan: his nickname is “Nelly” and his dream job is to be an NBA GM.

As I considered whether or not Nelly, the rapper from St. Louis, would be a good GM, my mind drifted to thinking about former walk-on and now scholarship-holding senior Matt Gregory, and it was then that I realized that Gregory is literally the 8th man at this point. If a couple people go down, Mike Brey is going to have to unleash the man known as “Twister” in his dorm, Fisher Hall. I WANT TO SEE MATT GREGORY RAINING THREES IN A BIG GAME SO BAD.

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When Notre Dame came back out of the locker room for final warmups, intros, and the national anthem, Purcell played “Bring ‘Em Out” by T.I., per usual. The song gets cut off way too early though, in my opinion, in favor of the Notre Dame fight song. No offense to the fight song (I love that song to death), but “Bring ‘Em Out” is a much better pump-up song and gets me way more hyped. I think Purcell should let that song play out a bit before switching over.

As ND finished up its shoot-around, Martinas “The Bird Whisperer” Geben threw down one of his patented two-handed monster slams and hung on the rim a bit, causing multiple shots from his teammates to clank off the rim as he bent it slightly downward. I love it — this is Marty’s hoop, folks.

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My man Brandon Hardy, AKA Gold Jacket Dude, was shown on the video board before the tip, and he was already lookin’ rather rambunctious. He was sporting a nice bowtie to go along with his gold shirt — he came to play in this one, without a doubt.

The coaches are wearing tennis shoes for this game in honor of Coaches vs. Cancer. Buzz Williams’ shoes are BRIGHT pink and I gotta say, he kinda sorta pulled it off, wearing a pink shirt to match. Nice work, Buzz.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

As we prepared for game action, the students sang along in SUPER LOUD fashion to Cathy Richardson’s classic jam, and then their singing faded into Dropkick Murphys as the game got going.

Starters

Notre Dame

TJ “Unconscious“ Gibbs

Rex “The Rexurrection” Pflueger

Martinas “The Bird Whisperer” Geben

John “John Mutton” Mooney

Nikola “Khal” Djogo

Virginia Tech

Justin Robinson, G

Justin Bibbs, G

Ahmed Hill, G

Kerry Blackshear Jr., F

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, G

First Half

Unsurprisingly, The Bird Whisperer won the tip, and on the first possession John Mutton was able to draw a foul shooting a three pointer on the first possession. My first thought: “Let’s just do that about 25-30 more times, and we’ve got this.”

John Mutton drained 2 of 3 free throws to give the Irish an early 2-0 lead, but the Hokies came right back with an Ahmed Hill deep ball. Also, if you’re unclear why I’m calling him John Mutton, it’s pretty simple:

Gibbs missed a three in transition, but Pflueger tracked down an offensive board on the miss and dished it back to Gibbs, who took another three and buried it, re-grabbing the lead for ND. Later on, a John Mutton tip-in would give the Irish a 7-5 lead with just over 16 minutes to play in the half.

VaTech’s Justin Bibbs responded in kind, though, draining a three to retake the lead. TJ Gibbs came right back and got himself another bucket, though, to give ND a 9-8 lead through 4 minutes of basketball.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Hokies would then seize the lead and never give it back, as Nickeil Alexander-Walker drained a 3, Bibbs picked up a nice mid-range jumper, and Justin Robinson buried one from deep as well, prompting a Notre Dame timeout with 14:29 left in the half.

After a shot clock violation that stemmed from Elijah Burns getting absolutely swatted down low, Virginia Tech came back and got another 3 from Ahmed Hill, giving all Irish fans cause to worry that the game was already getting out of hand.

As has become this team’s M.O., though, the Irish refused to go down without a fight, and Pflueger nailed a three to cut the deficit to 7. Later, with the Irish down 9, Nik Djogo hit a three pointer to make it 21-15 and give Irish fans hope that maybe this shorthanded team could hang around in this one.

During the next media timeout, the Dance Cam was put up on the video board, and the “Wobble” song was played as the student section GOT AFTER IT. I will never really understand people’s obsession with that song, but damnit if I don’t like Gold Jacket Dude breaking it down as the student section dances around him.

After the timeout, Mike Brey put out onto the court a very strange lineup, with three bigs (Bird Whisperer, John Mutton, and Austin Torres) to go along with Gibbs and Pflueger. This was a strange group for sure, and wasn’t something Brey revisited much as the game went along. But still, it was interesting to see.

On Virginia Tech’s next offensive possession, Alexander-Walker was able to get free for an INCREDIBLY wide open three ball. And when I say “INCREDIBLY wide open,” I’m not exaggerating or embellishing at all when I say that the freshman guard had enough time, wide open with the basketball at the three point line, to raise that basketball from its infancy, put it through college, celebrate its legal drinking age, and then send it off on its own to pursue its job of going through the hoop. The Irish defense was NOT doing a good job of preventing wide open three pointers.

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Pflueger hit another three to keep the Irish in it, down just 6 points somehow with 9:38 to play in the half. Alexander-Walker then hit another jumper to make it 26-18 heading into the under-8 media timeout.

During said timeout, the Notre Dame Pom Squad came out for their first half performance, and there were no pom-poms in sight. These women are having a full-on identity crisis at this point, folks. Someone needs to talk to them about what kind of “squad” they want to be.

After the performance, they brought out some Notre Dame baseball players to toss t-shirts for T-Shirt Toss Time, and THE FANS WERE EVEN MORE PUMPED FOR IT THAN USUAL. A sea of adults stood to jump up and down and scream for a t-shirt, which was especially troubling considering these people spent almost the entire game’s worth of action just sitting there.

Down 10 points, John Mutton dropped in a deep ball on a nice kick-out from the Bird Whisperer to cut the deficit to 7 once again. After a couple free throws, the Irish had cut it to 28-23, but after Elijah Burns tried to dribble (probably shouldn’t do that anymore) and had the ball easily taken from him, Virginia Tech got a dunk to go back up 7.

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Soon after, Gibbs had a little tiff with Chris Clarke, and a ref had to come separate them. The fire TJ Gibbs shows on the court is awesome, and I love that he wasn’t going to take any shit from the Hokies. This is TJ Gibbs’ team now, and damnit he isn’t letting anyone walk all over them.

After the under-4 timeout, Torres made a free throw, causing the entire arena to cheer pretty loudly. He missed the second, but the miracle had already occurred, and everyone who witnessed it counted their blessings that they were able to do so.

After Tyrie Jackson hit a corner 3 to put the Hokies up 10, the ND offense struggled to even look like they knew what they were doing, as the Irish picked up a shot clock violation after a hurried Djogo three from the corner ricocheted harmlessly off the side of the backboard.

As the clock ticked down, ND got a stop on Virginia Tech, and Gibbs caught an outlet pass running toward half court with mere seconds remaining in the first half. He let fly a shot from just past mid-court and DRAINED IT as the buzzer sounded, giving the fans something to get very loud for and cutting the Virginia Tech lead to 7 points somehow, some way.

Virginia Tech 34, Notre Dame 27 at the half.

Halftime Stats

Notre Dame: Notre Dame was led by TJ Gibbs’ 8 first half points and John Mutton’s 7 points and 8 rebounds, while Rex Pflueger chipped in 6 early points as well. Notably, The Bird Whisperer had 0 points and 4 rebounds, which was very problematic for a team that needed offense and had been relying on Geben in recent games. The Irish shot 27% from the field and 35% from deep in the first half.

Virginia Tech: Per usual, the Hokies enjoyed a balanced scoring attack in the first half, as Alexander-Walker led the team with 8 and 4, Bibbs chipped in 7, Hill scored 6, and Robinson and Jackson each dropped in 5 points. Virginia Tech shot 45% from the field and a blistering 47% from deep in the first half.

Halftime Show

As it typically does, the halftime entertainment got going with ND awarding someone with “Fan of the Game.” Last night, the winner was Professor Matt Webber, who teaches molecular engineering and had a lot of cool and important accolades that I was remiss in writing down. Congrats Matt!!!

As for the main event of halftime, the crowd was introduced to a new act that I don’t believe has been at ND before (at least I’ve never seen it): “Unicycle Mayhem” by Semcycle.

This performance was phenomenal, and I gotta hand it to Semcycle for putting on a very interesting show. It started with 3 people riding out onto the court on unicycles. Initially, I thought it was a dad, a daughter, and a son, but then I soon realized the daughter was definitely just a very petite woman who was probably the wife/mom of this unicycle family. Here’s a video of just the mom and dad performing, before their son was old enough to be featured in the act himself:

They began the show by doing basic tricks like holding hands and riding their unicycles, riding in circles with their hands all in the middle of the circle, etc. “Celebrate” by Pitbull was played as the featured entertainment music, so at this point in the show I had already bought in. Things would only get better.

The mom and dad picked up some jumprope and began doing that double-dutch thing, and then the little boy on his unicycle approached them.

That’s when it hit me.

This little guy’s about to jump rope on his unicycle.

No way.

It was spectacular. Unicycle Boy bounced up and down on his unicycle as the jumprope swirled around him, and the crowd went nuts.

The dad then snagged the mom off her unicycle and as he rode around carrying her, she proceeded to do all sorts of tricks, from doing handstands to sitting on his shoulders to standing on his shoulders.

When she stood on Unicycle Dad’s shoulders, Unicycle Son grabbed a basketball and tossed it up in the air. Unicycle Mom leapt off Unicycle Dad and slammed the ball home on one of the hoops like she was The Bird Whisperer, then hung there for a bit before dropping safely back onto Unicycle Dad’s shoulders.

Unicycle Dad then began pulling off Dirty Dancing moves while riding around, holding Unicycle Mom aloft as she stretched herself horizontally and sideways and every other direction, showing off for the crowd.

After Unicycle Son tried and failed multiple times to shoot a basketball into the hoop from his unicycle, Unicycle Dad got out this huge monstrosity of a unicycle that he had to climb a ladder taller than the basketball hoop to get on top of it. He rode around on that ridiculous unicycle and both he and Unicycle Son did some juggling to the delight of the crowd, and then finally it was over.

All in all, I thought it was a fantastic performance, with obvious homage being paid to Red Panda. Thus, I give this show a 9.5 on the scale of 1 to Red Panda. The group is a little raw and made a couple small mistakes, but there’s no doubt that with time these Semcycle people will grow to be performing on big stages just like their unicycle ancestor and trail blazer, Red Panda herself.

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Second Half

“Unicycle Mayhem” clearly worked.

The beginning of the second half saw the Purcell crowd incredibly rowdy and ready for the next half of basketball, helped along in the hype-ness by the Purcell DJ throwing on some “Thunderstruck.”

The half got started with a bucket from Virginia Tech and then a nice little baby hook from The Bird Whisperer to make it 36-29. Another Tech basket set the scene for Pflueger to drain another big 3, making it 38-32. Justin Robinson immediately responded, though, making an easy layup to extend the Hokie lead back to 8.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

From then on, the two teams did some basket trading, as Gibbs and Pflueger poured in some points to counteract the typical spread-out contributions from Virginia Tech, as Blackshear and Bibbs led the way in keeping the Irish outside of striking distance.

After a Bibbs three to put Virginia Tech up 10, Austin Freaking Torres got a nice post-up and backdown bucket.

What is happening.

During a break in the action, the student section began chanting something at Buzz Williams that I couldn’t exactly make out, but I’m pretty sure they were making fun of him having worn a pink shirt in the first half (to match his shoes) but coming out in the second half with a new white shirt on, having sweated through the pink one. Love the heckle hustle, Leprechaun Legion!

With the Irish trailing by 10 with under 15 minutes remaining, Pflueger went down hard as he went for an offensive rebound. He was helped off to the locker room with a left knee injury, and all Irish fans could feel were the most depressed feelings. Not again.

Robinson hit another 3 that was partially offset by a Geben basket, but then Ahmed Hill nailed a corner three to extend the Hokies’ lead to 14. After a nice Gibbs offensive rebound on his own missed 3 followed by a floater in the lane, Brey called a timeout to figure things out with ND down 12.

During that timeout, Pflueger ran back out onto the court, earning a pretty big cheer from the fans. Everyone exhaled a bit.

Pflueger’s return didn’t immediately galvanize the Irish squad, however, as Bibbs hit a corner 3 to put Virginia Tech up 59-44 with about 12 minutes left. A response 3 from Gibbs made it a twelve point game at the under-12 media timeout, though, keeping ND somewhat in this one.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia Tech refused to let ND easily back into it, though, as Bibbs dropped in another three and gave the Hokies the most threes made in one game in ACC play against Notre Dame (they would finish with 14 made threes).

John Mutton then began to go to work, though, getting an and-one and then shortly thereafter a three pointer to make it 64-53 with just over 10 minutes to play. The crowd was “Roaring” according to the Noise Meter.

After a Geben basket that cut it to 64-55, the crowd was on its collective feet and making a lot of noise. Gibbs then drained a 3, forced Buzz Williams to call timeout, and brought the arena to an explosive crescendo as the Purcell DJ threw on “Sandstorm” and watched as the student section lost their minds. This was masterful by the Purcell DJ.

After one made Virginia Tech free throw, Gibbs dropped in a couple free throws to make it 65-60 with 7:30 to go. The crowd once again got on their feet, and Gibbs got another couple free throws to make it a 3-point game. The crowd was as loud as it’s been in a long time, desperate for a win for this hardworking, over-matched team.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Irish were certainly running on fumes at this point, as the ND defense had a brain fart and left Alexander-Walker open long enough for him to drain a 3 to make it 68-62.

Gibbs responded with another 3, though, making the crowd explode yet again as Virginia Tech called a timeout with a 3-point lead and just 5:37 to play. ND managed to block the Hokies’ ensuing shot, but the loose ball landed in Chris Clarke’s hands under the hoop for an easy layup and a 70-65 score.

Pflueger then drew a foul shooting a 3, but only made 1 of 3 free throws to leave ND still trailing by 4.

With the Irish in dire need of another stop, Khal Djogo absolutely stifled a Hokie shot, and the loose ball was tipped by Pflueger to John Mutton. The Irish got that stop.

On the other end, The Bird Whisperer drew a foul on a post up, and hit both free throws to bring ND within 2 with 4:30 to go. And, you’ll never believe this, but the crowd got loud AGAIN.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

On the other end, The Bird Whisperer drew a big-time charge, leading to the crowd exploding in bliss as ND got the ball back and as Blackshear fouled out. Djogo would get called for an offensive foul on the other end, though, and Chris Clarke made ND pay by draining a deep 2 to make it 72-68.

On the next ND possession, John Mutton got himself an offensive rebound and a basket after two Virginia Tech guys were fighting each other over a rebound, and the Irish had once again cut the deficit to two.

Gibbs was called for a foul on the other end, and we went into a media timeout before the shots were taken. During that timeout, the ND band pulled out its now every-game performance of “Mr. Brightside,” and the student section sang all the words to the song VERY LOUD. That got me going all the way up in the press box, folks. Oh man, I love it.

Just before the action resumed, I noticed that MANY Notre Dame fans around the arena were sitting quietly, despite the fight song playing, the team being down just 2 points, and there being only 3 minutes left. The non-student fans really need to do a better job out there. It was disappointing.

Justin Robinson sunk both his free throws to put VaTech back up 4, and ND proceeded to have an empty possession with multiple solid chances to get a bucket. After getting a stop on the other end, The Bird Whisperer was able to secure a bucket for the Irish off a really nice offensive board.

74-72, 1:30 to go.

After Virginia Tech missed an open corner three (something they seemed to be unable to do throughout this game, making it feel like a minor miracle), ND had the ball, down 2, with a minute to play. On the ensuing possession, Djogo had a nice look from deep that I think all Irish fans truly believed would fall, but it did not. Virginia Tech was then able to get a basket on a Chris Clarke tip-in after his own missed shot, and then with ND coming up empty again on the other side of the floor, the Hokies were put at the free throw line by ND with a chance to sew things up.

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Chris Clarke knocked in a couple free throws, and a lot of those fans that were sitting and not showing excitement down the stretch began to stream to the exits, I guess to beat that very mild ND basketball game traffic? This team and how much it’s fought deserve much better support than that, in my opinion.

A Chris Clarke dunk and then a looooong Pflueger garbage time three brought us to the final score of 80-75 and another tough, tough loss for this shorthanded ND squad that is truly “emptying its tank” in giving absolutely everything they have to try to win these games.

Final Stats

Notre Dame: TJ Gibbs was the guy for the Irish in this one, scoring 27 points on 5-of-10 three point shooting while also dishing out 5 assists. John Mutton put up a fantastic 15 and 11 stat line, while Pflueger finally showed what he can do offensively by chipping in 15 points himself. The Bird Whisperer also rebounded nicely from a weak first half, finishing with 10 points and 9 rebounds. The Irish shot 39% from the field and 41% from deep while making 15 of 19 free throws. They out-rebounded Virginia Tech 39-28, but managed just 10 assists to go along with 13 turnovers.

Virginia Tech: Justin Bibbs was the high man for the Hokies, scoring 20 points and dishing out 5 assists. Justin Robinson added 12 points and 7 assists (and 0 turnovers) from the point guard spot, while Chris Clarke had a huge 12 points and 14 rebounds (half the team’s rebounds!) off the bench, including 10 of the team’s final 12 points. Nickeil Alexander-Walker put up 11 and 5 to add to that, and Hill and Blackshear each scored 9 to round out another fairly balanced scoring attack. The Hokies shot 51% from the field overall and a scorching-hot 56% from deep in this one, and managed 19 assists to only 10 turnovers, looking more like a Mike Brey team than ND in this one.

Stray Observations

  • BONZIE had another awesome shirt in this one, and I’m pretty sure it’s just the blue version of the shirt he wore for UNC. I completely respect that move - if you find a shirt you love and realize they sell it in various colors, you absolutely buy all the different versions of it and rock them. Well played, BONZ.
NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
  • It’s time for everyone to back off the criticism of the students and their attendance at basketball games, as has been the complaint over the years. The Leprechaun Legion has been bringing it this season, despite the losing streak, and instead it’s the non-student fans who have been weak this year. Watching fans pour out of their sections when the game was not completely over yet was painful, as this team had to scratch and claw their way into making this game close, and that effort was rewarded with fans not even being able to stay until the end, instead worrying about beating the tiny amount of traffic that comes from ND basketball games. Abysmal showing, non-students. Do better.
  • It’s hard to find much to be positive about right now, considering the 5-game losing streak, the injured star players, and the impending beatdown at Cameron Indoor just a day away. But after seeing TJ Gibbs step up as “the man” for ND last night, how can you NOT be excited for the next two seasons, with Gibbs leading a team chock full of talent to potentially greater heights than Mike Brey has ever brought this program to as head coach? It’s going to be really fun for the next few years, you guys, even if right now it sucks having to keep rooting for this hardworking team that keeps coming up short. TJ Gibbs is going to lead this program to some huge wins over the next two years —- mark my words
  • In the same vein, John Mutton, AKA John Mooney, continues to improve his game. What I’ve been especially impressed with is his defense and rebounding, as we knew coming into this year he could stretch the floor with his jumper, but we weren’t sure how he’d do in the actual big man aspects of the game. His double-double last night shows just how far he’s come, and I’m excited to see what two more years of development will do for him as well — especially once he gets to start playing alongside other talented big men like Juwan Durham and Nate Laszewski
  • Rex Pflueger has had an up-and-down season this year, specifically on offense. So, it was great to see him put together a nice scoring day (15 points on 5-of-13 shooting, 4-of-10 from deep). What he reminded me of again (he shouldn’t have to remind me of this anymore, but he does anyway) was how Goddamn tough he is. He left the game with what looked like could be a bad knee injury, then comes running back into the game and soon after is out there coming down with some of the toughest offensive rebounds I’ve ever seen someone come down with, extending possessions and getting ND more chances to score and chip away at the Hokie lead. There was one rebound especially where I think Pflueger came down with the ball against four Hokies fighting him for it. The dude is a competitor and does ALL the little things to make this Irish team competitive without its stars
  • I love learning fun facts about opposing players. For example, here’s something fun that’s definitely a fact about Ahmed Hill:

The ND Whiteboard guys, as well as Gold Jacket Dude, are absolutely fantastic and one of the biggest reasons the Leprechaun Legion has been so awesome of late. I actually spoke with those guys after the game and will have an article coming out about them later this week — so get excited for that!

  • If this team comes within 10 points of a Duke team playing at Cameron after just having lost a big game to Virginia there, I will be surprised. But hey, Mike Brey has mostly owned Duke lately, so I guess we’ll have to just wait and see