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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Irish remain undefeated in ACC, top Syracuse on the road

No Bonzie Colson. No Matt Farrell.

No problem?

Well, there were some problems for Notre Dame, but not enough to prevent the Irish (13-3, 3-0 ACC) from picking up a third-straight win to open conference play — this time on the road over Syracuse in a 51-49 contest at the Carrier Dome.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame 18 years, I’ve had a lot of great wins,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said after the game. “[But] this is as good a win, given I’ve got [senior forward] Bonzie Colson and [senior guard] Matt Farrell sitting back in their apartment in South Bend, Indiana. I couldn’t be prouder of a group.”

A quick look at the stat sheet, and the win might not look as great as it sounds; the Irish shot just 17-of-56 from the floor — a 30.4 percent clip — and turned the ball over 13 times while only having nine assists, a foreboding mark for a team that was second in all of Division I basketball in assist/turnover ratio last season.

But somehow, someway, the Irish managed to pull out the win against the Orange (12-4, 1-2). And perhaps no single play encapsulated the way they won than the game’s winning basket.

With the game tied at 49 and less than 30 seconds left on the clock, Syracuse carried the ball up the court with a chance to score in the closing seconds and put the game away.

But the Irish defense forced a turnover — their seventh steal and the 14th Syracuse turnover in the contest.

Irish junior guard Rex Pflueger dunks during Notre Dame's 90-46 over Cardinal Stritch on Nov. 10 at Purcell Pavilion.
Irish junior guard Rex Pflueger dunks during Notre Dame's 90-46 win over Cardinal Stritch on Nov. 7 at Purcell Pavilion.

And after sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs missed his attempt to put the game away with a layup on the ensuing fast break, junior guard Rex Pflueger followed it up with a rebound and layup of his own with just over two seconds left on the clock.

It was just one of Notre Dame’s season-high 21 offensive rebounds — and one of the team’s 42 total rebounds — in the contest, but it proved to be just enough for the Irish to steal the win.

A win generated by defense and rebounding, which some would say is an unusual formula for the Irish.

“I thought our defense and rebounding was the difference tonight,” Brey said. “And a lot of our young, inexperienced guys — in a tough atmosphere — played well, so [that is] something to build on.

“ … We’ve not been known as a big-time rebounding program. I’m kind of digging this defending and rebounding thing, kind of new territory for our program.”

In the first half, it did not seem as though the Irish would be able to generate enough points, as they made just three of their first 21 attempts from the field on their way to a 6-for-29 shooting performance for the period. The Orange, on the other hand, came out shooting well, finishing 10-for-20 — including 5-for-8 from beyond the arc — in the half.

But despite the gap in shooting success, the Irish only trailed 28-19 at the break, as the defense was able to force nine turnovers to limit Syracuse’s shot attempts and Gibbs scored 14 of his team-high 18 points in the first half on 5-for-10 shooting from the floor.

“All I know is that I looked down at the stat sheet in my assistant’s hand in the first half and we were 1-for-14,” Brey said of the team’s ability to grind out the game despite a slow offensive start. “We somehow survived it.”

Despite trailing by as many as 11 in the first half, the Irish jumped out to a quick start in the next period. Pflueger, who scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half, started the scoring with a 3, then Gibbs followed with a jumper and freshman wing D.J. Harvey added a 3 — his only basket on 14 shots — to bring the Irish within a point, 28-27, with 17:22 left in the game.

Kathryne Robinson | The Observer
Irish sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs dribbles around a defender during Notre Dame's 88-59 win over Bethel in an exhibition game at Purcell Pavilion on Nov. 3.

But Notre Dame would be unable to take a lead for the next 15 minutes, though the Syracuse lead never grew larger than six. But with 2:25 left on the clock, Gibbs drew a foul and converted both foul shots to put the Irish ahead, 45-44. The lead then grew to three when senior forward Martinas Geben grabbed an offensive board — his ninth rebound of the half and 14th board of the game — and scored with 1:39 to go.

But with 49 seconds to go, Syracuse sophomore guard Tyus Battle would hit a game-tying 3 to bring the score to 49-49, setting up Pflueger’s late-game heroics.

The second half of the game saw the Irish offense shoot the ball much more effectively, as it converted 11 of its 27 shots for a 40.7 percent mark from the floor. The defense stepped up as well, holding Syracuse to just a 30.8 percent mark on 8-for-26 shooting from the floor.

With the win over the Orange, the Irish remained one of the ACC’s three unbeaten teams in conference play. And having won without his team’s two leading scorers, Brey could not be happier with where his team stood at this point in conference play.

“Any win in this league — and any road win, no matter how you get it — is huge,” Brey said. “For us to be 3-0 [in the ACC], given where we are with Colson and Farrell, I may have a cocktail tonight.”

The Irish will get a few days off before continuing ACC play with another road contest Wednesday. Notre Dame will take on Georgia Tech then, a team it has already played and beat at Purcell Pavilion 68-59 on Dec. 30. Tipoff for the game is scheduled for 7 p.m.