It would have been a huge win for the Irish.
Notre Dame has never knocked off a No. 1 team on the road, but a win over top-ranked Virginia would have put the Irish squarely in the NCAA tournament picture.
The Irish (18-13, 8-10 ACC) played the Cavaliers (27-3, 17-1) tough, but in the end, Notre Dame couldn’t give senior forward Bonzie Colson enough help on offense and fell 62-57 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“I think we’re back,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said of the team’s performance. “With Bonzie and playing like we were before the injury. Even though we didn’t win, I really like what we got out of that today against a great team.”
Colson certainly led the way for Notre Dame on Saturday, finishing with 24 points and 15 rebounds in 37 minutes on the floor, even as the senior slowed down a little in the second half due to cramping.
“I still got some work to do,” Colson said. “I was a little sore and my knees and calves were cramping up a bit, but I’ll be fine. These games and practices are really helping me get back.”
The loss puts the onus on the Irish to make a deep run in the ACC tournament this week in order to make the NCAA tournament.
“We are probably one of the harder ones to analyze,” Brey said. “We have to do some work in Brooklyn to be on the docket. We’re in there, they have to look at us. Our numbers are good and one thing I’m very happy about is Bonzie Colson is back. With him we have a chance.”
The Irish only trailed 8-7 at the under-16 media timeout. But for the rest of the half, the Irish struggled to keep up with the Cavaliers.
Brey said offensive rebounding would be a key to the game, and the Irish effort on that front was evident with senior forward Martinas Geben and Colson leading the charge on the offensive glass. However, Notre Dame struggled to convert on the offensive end, as tip-in attempts just didn’t fall.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers found their stroke from beyond the 3-point arc — going 5-for-11 in the game. Brey attributed his team’s defensive struggles to Virginia’s physical screen game.
“When you play them it’s physically draining because you’re chasing their perimeter guys off those roadblocks,” Brey said.
The only player keeping Notre Dame in the game was Colson. In just his second game back from a fractured foot, Colson put up 18 points and nine rebounds in the game’s first half, including a 3-of-6 mark from 3-point range.
The next highest scorer in the half for Notre Dame was Geben with five points, as senior guard Matt Farrell and sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs combined for two first-half points. Farrell was mostly limited with two early fouls.
“I think you have to give credit to Virginia’s defense,” Brey said of Farrell’s struggles. “They really pushed him out, they had different guys on him. Everything was hard for him offensively. … When they've really taken him away, it’s affected us.”
Thanks to Colson, the Irish were able to stop the bleeding and pull within five points at halftime at 32-27.
But Farrell jump started the Irish in the second half with a 3 on the first possession of the period and two assists that led to Geben buckets.
A Gibbs layup gave Notre Dame a 40-39 lead at the 13:48 mark in the game and the Irish held the lead for the next five minutes, but Virginia surged back thanks to some hustle plays by Cavaliers sophomore Mamadi Diakite.
The Cavaliers maintained a small lead and pushed it to 55-50 with five five minutes left of game time.
The Irish went to Colson and the senior hit two straight field goals to bring it to 57-54 with three minutes left.
A heavily-contested Farrell 3-pointer made it 59-57 with 2:26 left.
But from there, the Irish offense fell apart as Notre Dame called Farrell’s number on another deep, well-guarded 3. The next Irish possession was almost comical, as Colson had the ball knocked away and Farrell failed to get up a shot as the shot clock expired.
“When you play Virginia and you get an open shot in the second half, you’re a little tired because you’ve been chasing [sophomore guard Ty] Jerome off of roadblocks,” Brey said. “That’s always been a problem when we play these guys, you’re a little tired to rise up and take the shot because you’ve been guarding them.”
Notre Dame tried to extend the game by fouling, but Virginia made their free throws and hung on to win 62-57.
Next up for the Irish is a trip to Brooklyn and the ACC tournament. Notre Dame earned the tournament’s No. 10 seed and will play Pittsburgh on Tuesday at 2 p.m.
“To see [Farrell] and Bonzie fully healthy and in a good state of mind heading to Brooklyn, that’s all I can ask for,” Brey said.
Irish come up just short against Cavaliers
It would have been a huge win for the Irish.