When the Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball team lost 7 straight games after a slew of devastating injuries decimated Mike Brey’s squad’s depth and star power in January, everyone wrote off the season as a lost cause. The Irish were playing ugly basketball and despite some fantastic efforts against some very good teams, they continued to come up short, game after game. This team was destined for the NIT, or potentially no postseason tournament at all. It looked that bad.
I’m not here to say everything has turned around — the Irish’s 84-69 walloping of Florida State yesterday was just the team’s second win in the past five weeks, and ND would be the 12 seed if the ACC Tournament began right now.
But with a 15-10 overall record and a 5-7 ACC record, Notre Dame is somehow just two games out of 5th place in the ACC, where Miami, Virginia Tech, and Louisville are all gridlocked with a 7-5 conference record. In fact, just ~4 games separate the teams currently holding the 4-through-13 positions in the ACC standings.
So, as Matt Farrell finally gets back into game shape (he sure looked to have shaken the rust off during this one) and players like DJ Harvey and potentially BONZIE COLSON will become available again within the next few weeks, it’s time for Fighting Irish fans to start to believe.
This program has one of the best coaches in the country, a team that’s begun to play some really good basketball, and instead of losing key pieces, it has begun to add them back in as we hit the home stretch of the college basketball season.
It may still be a long shot — the Irish really need to get to 8 or 9 ACC wins AND THEN make enough noise in the ACC Tourney, with COLSON playing and looking good, for the NCAA Tournament selection committee to give them a spot — but this team has begun playing really well at a really good time, and so it’s time the fan base once again put their faith and belief behind this team.
With all that said, let’s dive into the events of yesterday that brought me to this message — it was a helluva game with a lot to build off of and a lot of reason to hope for the rest of this tumultuous season.
I rolled into Purcell about 25 minutes before tipoff, and once I got to my seat in the press box, I immediately noticed that the Purcell video board was showing amazing fun facts of a bunch of ND players. So, I quickly yanked out my laptop and began typing furious notes. Here’s what I was able to salvage:
- Martinas “The Bird Whisperer” Geben actually has another nickname that people besides my call him — “Smash”; even more importantly, his favorite TV show is The Office, meaning that somehow, some way, he’s found a way to make me love him more. At some point, I need to ask him lots of questions about the show (specifically, if you had to pick a character from the show to represent each teammate, who would you choose???); final fun fact I wanted to share with you: his teammates describe him as “tenacious,” which seems very appropriate
- Nikola Djogo’s favorite actor is Ryan Gosling and his favorite video game is Crash Bandicoot. I don’t really have any commentary on this, except I really wanna call him “Crash” now so when he and The Bird Whisperer play together, they can be Smash and Crash. Who says no???
- John “John Mutton” Mooney’s nickname on the team is apparently “Moon,” and I refuse to acknowledge that as his nickname. He will forever be John Mutton; Also his favorite actor is Jonah Hill and his favorite band is Florida Georgia Line
- Matt Gregory’s nickname is “Moose,” which I think is a solid nickname; his dream job is to be a weatherman, which is amazing because his father is a weatherman in his hometown of Indianapolis — love when sons want to follow in their father’s footsteps and enter the family business; finally, he says his teammates say he is “LeBron-esque,” and I believe that wholeheartedly and not at all sarcastically. Matt Gregory is THE BEST
- Liam Nelligan had mostly normal answers that I have also already seen before, but one thing I didn’t see before is that his favorite TV show is also The Office. Liam is now one of my favorite basketball players
I finally turned my gaze to look around at the crowd, and it was pretty sparse with about 10 minutes until tip-off. Purcell usually fills in last minute, so this didn’t worry me too much, but there were quite a few open rows of seats in the very top sections throughout the game, and that was surprising considering the game was supposedly sold out. The students showed up and did their thing, though.
The Purcell DJ began playing “Power” by Kanye West and it made me think of the new Power Ranges movie because that song is in that and I’m a weirdo. You’re welcome for this very useful information.
The video board flipped to showing BONZIE, who was sitting next to some little kids and chatting them up, being just an amazing guy, per usual. He then gave an adorable, tiny girl a high five. I miss having BONZIE on the court so much. He’s the best.
Finally, a young girl by the name of Mylee Hauser (hopefully I got the spelling right) cranked out an absolutely fantastic rendition of the national anthem, and then it was time to play ball.
Notre Dame: Matt Farrell, TJ Gibbs, Rex Pflueger, Austin Torres, Martinas “Smash the Bird Whisperer” Geben
Fun fact I learned during these introductions — Austin Torres is a Stanford Griffin, just like all the best alumni of Notre Dame have been. All hail the Cinderblock Palace of Love!!!
Florida State: Phil Cofer, CJ Walker, Braian Angola, Terance Mann, Christ Koumadje
The students belted out a little Cathy Richardson, and then we were off.
The half began for the Irish about as well as they could have asked for, as Smash the Bird Whisperer won the tip, allowing Farrell to drain a three pointer just a few moments later to give ND a 3-0 lead. After a stop on the other end, Pflueger hit a pull-up three of his own, and the Irish were ahead 6-0 after just a minute of play.
After Torres drew a charge and Farrell picked up an offensive foul, Koumadje finally got the Seminoles on the board with a nice little move on Smash the Bird Whisperer, who gave up the baseline and allowed an easy little bucket.
The score was 7-2 in favor of the Irish at the first media timeout, and during that timeout the band played that troll movie song by that one guy who was in NSYNC. The students were GROOVIN’ to it.
After Gibbs drew a charge (ND did this a few times on the afternoon), Smash the Bird Whisperer drew a foul after absolutely SKYING for an offensive rebound, and he hit a couple free throws to extend the Notre Dame lead to 9-4 with about 14:45 left in the half.
A couple possessions later, Florida State managed to allow TJ Gibbs to get wide open in the corner on an inbounds play, and he drained the deep ball to make it 12-4.
The Seminoles then subbed in PJ Savoy, a very good shooter, and he immediately backed that reputation up by hitting a 3. Fortunately, the Irish only allowed him to do that a couple more times during this one, or it might have been a different game and outcome.
During a later timeout, the video board advertised that Monday, February 19th is Leprechaun Legion Appreciation Night. To that, I say it’s codswallop. EVERY DAY should be Leprechaun Legion Appreciation Night. Those guys kick ass and are the reason that place gets loud. Period.
Also during said break, they put up the Dance Cam and cranked up the “You Should Be Dancing” by the Bee Gees, which engendered some nice disco moves from nostalgic fans but otherwise did not excite the crowd too much. They then switched to the Bee Gees’ more popular hit, “Stayin’ Alive,” and the rest of the Dance Cam was pretty entertaining, between the featured student section dancers and the small children pulling off some wild moves.
Down 12-7, the Seminoles quickly erased that deficit with a couple threes, taking their first lead of the game, 13-12, and capping a 9-0 run. ND responded swiftly, though, with Crash finding Pflueger with a nice cross-court kick-out pass for a corner three. 15-13, ND, with 10 minutes to go in the first half.
With the score knotted at 15 a few possessions later, Matt Farrell knocked down a feathery pull-up 3 over a taller defender, getting the crowd just a tad loud and making it an 18-15 game.
Later on, with the Irish clinging to a 2-point lead, Matt Farrell made a nice pass to ELIJAH BURNS under the hoop, and he MADE THE SHOT. It was pretty unexpected to see that, and I need to quickly give a side note that Burns played VERY well in his 13 minutes of action, racking up 5 points and 2 boards and playing very solid defense.
Later on, Savoy knocked down another one of his threes, but as he celebrated the make, Crash sprinted behind the entire FSU defense and was able to throw down a wide open dunk after a teammate hit him with a great Hail Mary pass.
With a 3-point lead over FSU, Matt Farrell used a great Elijah Burns screen to bury yet another three and give ND a 25-19 lead. The crowd is RABID at this point — especially after ND got a stop on FSU’s next possession.
Pflueger than proceeded to draw a foul using a nice pump-fake and side-step, and as we went into a media timeout the Purcell DJ plugged into a little Sandstorm and got the whole arena rockin’. This was masterful, in my opinion.
After a Farrell bucket made it 30-19, the Seminoles’ MJ Walker hit a three to stop the bleeding. Gibbs refused to allow that without a response, though, drawing a foul on the other end and hitting both free throws to make it 30-22 ND with just over 5 minutes in the half.
A little later on, as he shot free throws in the bonus, I realized that FSU’s starter Angola is named Braian, not Brian. I’m not usually a fan of names that are common names, just spelled funny, but this one really pleases me for some reason. You go, Braian. Way to miss that front end of the one-and-one.
On the other end, Crash completely missed the hoop on a deep ball, but Pflueger was waiting under the hoop for the easy put-back. 32-22 Notre Dame, timeout Florida State. 3:34 left in the half.
This is where the Irish began to get a little sloppy, as Florida State got a Koumadje tip-in (ah, Christ!) and a layup in transition off of a Farrell turnover. The Seminoles then downed a jump hook, and within a minute and a half FSU had cut the deficit to 4. Timeout, Notre Dame.
The two teams traded some free throws, and then Pflueger showed off some actual scoring ability, converting on an aggressive and impressive take to the hoop, hanging in the air to absorb contact and still make the bucket as he was fouled. He hit the free throw as well, bringing the score to 37-29.
FSU put in a couple baskets just before the end of the half, but Farrell also hit another deep three pointer to give us a halftime score of 40-34. Gibbs had another shot at a 1st half buzzer beater with a half court shot attempt that was somewhat close, but it was off to the right a little bit.
Notre Dame: Matt Farrell led the way with 14 points and 3 assists on 4-of-6 three point shooting. Rex Pflueger had an unusually strong first half, scoring 12 points to go along with 5 rebounds. TJ Gibbs added 7 of his own to the point total, meaning the trio of guards accounted for 83% of the team’s first half points. The Irish shot 43% from the field overall, 44% from deep, and made 9-of-11 free throws in the half. Part of the reason FSU was only down 6, though, was the team’s 5 assists and 7 turnovers, showing much less efficiency than they showed in the Boston College game.
Florida State: PJ Savoy was the highest-scoring Seminole with 11 points on 3-of-6 three point shooting, while Phil Cofer chipped in 7 and 4 and Christ Koumadje scored 6. FSU shot 46% from the field in the half along with 39% from three point range and 5-of-9 from the charity stripe. The Seminoles were not much more efficient than ND, dishing out 7 assists as a team while also committing 6 turnovers. They were out-rebounded by the Irish in the half as well, 19 to 15.
The halftime show was all about honoring the 1977-1978 Notre Dame basketball team, which is the only Irish team to ever make a Final Four. Most of that team was in attendance and paraded out to half court, with a number of them earning big cheers (obviously, the biggest cheer was for coach Digger Phelps).
Most of the entertainment for this was just a video tribute to that team, showing lots of great old highlights of the team taking down #1 Marquette, taking down multiple opponents in a row to make the Final Four, etc.
Fun facts I learned:
- One of the captains of the team was named Duck Williams and that probably wasn’t his legal, given name, but damnit, let me have this. His name is Duck!!!
- That team handed UCLA its only 2 regular season losses, and beat defending champion and #1-ranked Marquette by overcoming a 14-point halftime deficit and winning 65-59
- They beat Houston and Utah to set up a revenge game against a Depaul team who had beaten them by 1 in the regular season. ND beat Depaul by 20 in the tourney, advancing to the Final Four
- The group of players who played for Digger from 1977 to 1981 beat FIVE #1-ranked teams, had a 10-game stretch in 1979 where they were #1 in the country, and 10 of those players from that time went on to be selected in the NBA Draft. Not too shabby, you guys
Finally, Digger was introduced to briefly speak about the team, and I thought he did an awesome job of not only praising the basketball achievements of those guys, but he then went on to loudly proclaim how fantastic all of these guys have been in their respective careers. He harped on leadership, creativity, risk taking, street smarts, and just being survivors, and said that with what these guys have done in their lives, they are all “prime time players in the game of life.”
The ND 1978 Final Four team being recognized at halftime today. pic.twitter.com/DqEqWIHgQy— Eli Gehn (@EliGehnWNDU) February 10, 2018
He mentioned how at ND they had four years to prepare players not just for basketball but for life, and he’s so proud of how far they all have come with the preparation ND gave them. I really hope Isaiah Stewart, ND’s top target in the 2019 class who was in attendance, was paying attention to that message. ND WILL SET YOU UP FOR LIFE, SON!!!
Overall, I thought the ceremony was well done, and I loved Digger’s message. However, the video was just a narrated series of highlights, and I honestly would have loved to have heard more testimonials from the players and coaches, or at least had more of them speak after the video. I think that would have been much cooler.
Overall, though, it was awesome seeing those legends all back together again, even if it was a bunch of players who were well before my time. I give it a 7 on a scale of 1 to Red Panda.
Florida State started out the 2nd half on a positive note, with Mann knocking down a jumper to make it 40-36 on their first possession.
It looked as if the Seminoles may pull even closer than that, too, as they had the ball after getting a stop, but point guard CJ Walker got called for a charge when he ran over Smash the Bird Whisperer, which I found SUPER comical, considering Smash is so much larger than him. I hate charges and think in almost all cases they should be banned, but damnit if I didn’t love that 6’10”, 250-pound Lithuanian hero crashing backward when the 6’1”, 195-pound Walker ran into him in the lane. This is where amazing happens.
Soon after that, ND got the ball out in transition and we in the crowd were treated to the best of treats, Smash the Bird Whisperer spreading his wings and soaring to throw down an alley-oop setup from Matty Farrell.
My note from that moment: “I AM SO HAPPY.”
After Smash the Bird Whisperer followed that alley-oop up with a nice little turnaround jump hook, the Irish led 44-38 with about 17 minutes left in the game.
Gibbs came up limping during a play soon after that, but came back in pretty quickly, leading me to believe it was just a cramp or something. Meanwhile, with Gibbs out, Pflueger took the most persistent three I’ve ever seen, refusing to allow the multiple defenders swarming him to stymie his deep ball. Unsurprisingly, it did not come close to going in the hoop.
After a Pflueger free throw and an and-one from FSU, Notre Dame led 45-41. Pflueger then decided to do what had been working, instead of the stubborn three point shot in traffic, and drove to the hoop to draw another foul. As he did so, I couldn’t help but wonder to myself once again why Pflueger, who absolutely has the leaping ability, doesn’t try dunking on the opponent JUST ONCE. I get he’s trying to be smart and just get the foul call, but I want the Rexurrection Dunk so so so so bad. Maybe he’s saving it for UNC on Monday?
Also, this was what I actually wrote in my notes for that point:
“WHY DOESN’T REX USE THE JETPACK AND DUNK ON SOMEONE??”
It’s a good, well-articulated question, you guys.
Anyway, after the free throws, the Irish led by 6, but that lead quickly fell back to 4 after ND allowed FSU to get an offensive board and a bucket. Pflueger responded by just converting on another excellent drive to the basket. 49-44, ND.
From here, we got a couple minutes of just sloppy chaos on the court, as ND almost got a steal but didn’t, Florida State got an offensive board, Smash the Bird Whisperer got A MAN’S REBOUND in traffic and despite major contact (with no call), and Austin Torres managed to get absolutely rejected at the rim on a powerful dunk attempt. ND, of course, followed that up by getting a shot clock violation. Bravo!!!!
After that sequence of bad basketball, Pflueger was brought back into the game after having come out to get a breather, and I found myself, honest to God, saying under my breath, “Thank God, we need offense.”
If you told me even a week ago I’d say that about Rex Pflueger this season, I’d laugh in your face. Hilarious joke, future Pat. LOL. LMAO. ROFL. That’s so great.
After a Florida State and-one and a Matty Farrell three, the two teams headed into the under-12 timeout with the Irish leading 52-47.
After a bad and way too long Farrell pass to Pflueger as ND tried to beat FSU’s three-quarters-court pressure, CJ Walker knocked down a three to tie the game at 52.
Gibbs responded with a big-time deep two-point jumper, and heading into a timeout the Irish led 54-52 with less than 10 minutes remaining in the contest. This timeout gave us the ND band playing Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch,” as well as a T-Shirt Toss Time that featured an actual adult human male getting a t-shirt thrown to him. The man caught it, blew someone a kiss, and looked very proud — like he had been working toward this his whole life. All of this was caught on the video board and it was spectacular.
The two teams traded a couple baskets after that and a Terance Mann tip-in with less than 9 minutes to go made it 56-56.
This one was looking to be another game that goes down to the wire, but the Fighting Irish, at this point, decided they had other ideas as to how the game would play out. Those guys flipped the switch and decided to just DESTROY Florida State. I’m talking about breaking their Goddamn will. And it happened.
Farrell made a nice finger roll layup. Gibbs took a charge that got the crowd up to “Cranked” and maybe even “Full Domer” on the Purcell “Noise Meter.” Gibbs drew a foul shooting a three and hit all his free throws. FSU managed to get a bucket here, but then Elijah Burns, dared to shoot a jumper by the Seminoles, drained a shot from the free throw line.
Soon after, Gibbs drained a three to give Notre Dame a 66-58 lead, and the crowd at this point was standing and LOUD. Florida State proceeded to then throw the ball away, and Pflueger did his thing by drawing another foul and hitting both free throws. After ANOTHER ND stop, Gibbs put together a fantastic drive to the hoop and finished with a tough bucket, giving ND a 70-58 lead.
Heading into a timeout, the crowd was OFF THE HOOK, and this only led to the band playing “Mr. Brightside” and enabling the students to once again belt it out and keep the energy going during the break.
After the timeout, Smash the Bird Whisperer managed to make a leaping interception of a Florida State pass, as if he were Julian Love or someone, and then Burns managed to make one of two free throws after drawing a foul on the other end.
The Irish got yet another stop on D, and then Gibbs found a back-cutting Farrell with a beautiful pass that threaded the needle and allowed for an easy Farrell layup that made it 73-58, Notre Dame. FSU finally got another bucket on an MJ Walker shot after ND had been on a 12-0 run, and this seemed to quiet the crowd immensely, for some reason. This seemed odd, considering ND was still on a 17-4 run overall at this point, but it did not matter, as the crowd was revved back up after another Farrell basket made it 75-60.
After a turnaround shot made by Smash the Bird Whisperer, Matt Farrell pulled up for a “why not?” kind of shot from DEEP AS HELL and buried it, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
Gibbs managed another bucket, CJ Walker hit a couple more threes, and ND got some free throws, bringing us to that 84-69 final score.
As the final minute was finishing up, the Leprechaun Legion recycled a fantastic power move they pulled last season against the Seminoles, doing FSU’s tomahawk chant and hand gestures, followed by a rousing “WE ARE! N-D!” chant. It was SO GOOD.
Notre Dame: Matt Farrell finished with a career-high 28 points on 10-of-15 shooting overall (6-of-10 from deep...6 made threes was also a career high). He also had 5 assists and 4 rebounds. Rex Pflueger also scored a career high, contributing 19 points to go along with 6 rebounds and 4 assists. TJ Gibbs scored 19 as well, and Martinas “Smash the Bird Whisperer” Geben had a very strong 10 points and 8 boards. The Irish shot 49% from the field overall, 39% from deep, and made 20-of-24 free throws. They had just 11 assists to offset their 10 turnovers (but did have just 3 second half turnovers, making it a very efficient second half), and tied FSU in rebounds at 35, although the Seminoles pulled in 11 offensive boards to ND’s 5.
Florida State: CJ Walker finished as the high scorer for FSU, scoring 16 points on 4-of-5 three point shooting. Phil Cofer added 12 points and 5 rebounds, and PJ Savoy had those 11 points, all scored in the first half, on 3-of-8 shooting from deep. Christ Koumadje had a pretty good game as well, chipping in 8 points and 5 rebounds. The Seminoles shot 41% from the field overall, 35% from deep, and made 8 of 13 free throws.
- Just wanna give one more shout out to some of the awesome names that Leonard Hamilton has assembled on his roster: Christ Koumadje is a Godsend, Braian Angola has a weird spelling of Brian and a western African country as his name, Terance Mann and Trent Forrest have common nouns as their last names, and Mfiondu Kabengele is just super fun to try and pronounce. All around great work, FSU
- The Matt Farrell that originally returned from his sprained ankle looked exhausted and lethargic and just not the same as the Farrell we know and love, who plays with an edge and a super-fast speed. The Farrell we’ve seen in the past two games looks like the Farrell of last year, and if he’s here to stay, this team is about to be SCARY. He’s pulling up from anywhere and draining threes and then using his quickness to get buckets at the hoop as well...I AM HERE FOR IT
- Rex Pflueger has taken a lot of shit for his offensive performances during this rough stretch for ND. He was being asked to be a more reliable and primary scorer than he really can be, and it was not working out. So, with that in mind, it was AWESOME to see him have such a good day on offense. Brey mentioned that Farrell being back means Pflueger doesn’t have to be relied on for any outside shooting anymore, freeing him up to attack more. If that’s the case, that’s amazing, because Pflueger attacking is pretty damn good at drawing fouls and even occasionally finishing. Hats off to him on a very good day, and here’s to hoping he can replicate that offensive performance against even better competition
- Elijah Burns was really good yesterday. He played very good defense, set good screens, mixed it up on the boards, and chipped in 5 points when he is usually expected to not come close to scoring. That jumper he hit was HUGE at the time, and if he can continue to give 10-15 minutes of that kind of effort, ND is a much better team for it
- Smash the Bird Whisperer was strong, per usual. He’s just the best.
- Oh, and obviously the offense turned it on in that big 24-4 run in the second half, BUT HOW ABOUT THAT IRISH DEFENSE??? They gave up just 4 points in a span of 7:30 before CJ Walker poured in a few garbage time threes. This squad completely flipped the switch defensively and eliminated the second chances on the offensive glass for FSU and it was beautiful. Can’t overestimate the defense’s importance in maintaining that big run
- The North Carolina game on Monday should be very interesting. This will be the Tar Heels’ third game in five days, and both of the first two games were emotional and close rivalry games. Considering that, and with the momentum ND has, the Irish might actually have a shot to make this one interesting. Not sure I’ll go so far as to say Notre Dame will win in Chapel Hill, but at this point, do you really want to bet against Mike Brey, Matt Farrell, TJ Gibbs, and the rest of these guys?
- Just looking at the schedule the rest of the way, it’s actually somewhat conceivable that the Irish get to that magic 9-9 ACC record that many think would be solid enough (along with a decent showing in the ACC Tourney) to get the Irish into the NCAA Tournament — especially if the selection committee knows BONZIE will be back for it. You can chalk up the UNC and Virginia games as the likely road losses they are, but ND otherwise gets to play:
- at BC (not a guaranteed win after the Eagles beat Miami yesterday, but still a winnable game)
- at home against an up-and-down, but pretty damn good, Miami team
- on the road at Wake Forest, who is 2-10 in ACC play and 9-15 overall
- at home, on Senior Night, against an ABYSMAL Pittsburgh team that is 8-17 overall and winless in the ACC
Can the Irish win all 4 of those games, or at least 4 of the next 6? I sure think so. It won’t be a cakewalk, but considering DJ Harvey is expected back for BC, and BONZIE’s return may just be in the cards for the final games of the season, getting to .500 in league play is suddenly very doable, and the potential benefits of winning 4 of 6 down the stretch in such a close standings situation would be HUGE for the ACC Tournament.
I’m very excited to see how this team does down the home stretch here, and at this point all I can say to my fellow Irish fans is that you gotta believe in something. Why not make that something be Mike Brey and this resilient, fun, suddenly-on-the-rise Notre Dame hoops team?
I believe. Let’s do this.