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Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024
The Observer

ND struggles to overcome injuries in ACC play, falls in NIT

Entering the season with top-15 expectations, Notre Dame was plagued with injuries and a tough conference schedule that resulted in a second-round exit from the NIT tournament. The campaign could be likened to working on a puzzle in which, just when you found one piece, you lost another.

However, a season that fell short of the ultimate goal of qualifying for the NCAA tournament was not without its highlights. Two game-winners, a 21-point ACC tournament comeback and several program benchmarks, including head coach Mike Brey becoming the winningest coach in program history along with the winningest senior class, continued the program’s momentum.

Irish senior point guard Matt Farrell dribbles up court during Notre Dame's 96-85 win over Boston College on Feb. 6 at Purcell Pavilion.
Irish senior point guard Matt Farrell dribbles upcourt during Notre Dame's 96-85 win over Boston College on Feb. 6 at Purcell Pavilion.

Heading west to Hawaii for the Maui Jim Invitational in late November, the Irish (21-15, 8-10 ACC) faced No. 6 Wichita State in the final round.

Heading into the second half with a 14-point deficit, Notre Dame quickly began to claw back, hitting six of its first eight shots to cut the lead in half. Down three with 20 seconds remaining, senior guard Matt Farrell stole the inbounds pass before shoveling the ball to senior forward Bonzie Colson, who layed it in to make the score 66-65.

With just over two seconds, junior guard Rex Pflueger made the inbound pass to a slashing senior forward Martinas Geben who got fouled on the shot. Geben went on to hit both free throws to seal the 67-66 victory.

Pflueger said the play that they ran was exactly what he had in mind.

“We had Bonzie and Matt obviously being our primary go-to players in that situation,” he said. “Knowing how Martin has progressed during his time here. … I knew he was ready for the big lights. When we ran that play I knew he was going to be open because there would be so much emphasis on those other guys. When Marty rolled, I just knew I had to give him the ball.”

Assistant coach Ryan Ayers said that the team’s mantra was to just keep plugging away.

“Winning the Wichita State game on the biggest stage of college basketball at that time was an amazing feeling,” he said. “They did it together, the guys really relied on each other.”

The win over the Shockers (25-8, 14-4 American) moved the Irish into the top-five heading into December.

After a routing of North Carolina State at home that earned Brey the title of winningest coach in school history, surpassing Digger Phelps, but resulted in an ankle injury to Farrell, the Irish made their way to the Carrier Dome to take on Syracuse. In their first game without captains Farrell and Colson, who’d been sidelined earlier that week with a broken ankle, Brey had to rely on some of his less experienced players to step up and fill the void.

“That was the first game we played without Matt or Bonz … they didn’t even travel with us,” sophomore starting guard T.J. Gibbs said. “That whole trip we had an uneasy feeling not having those two guys with us. Coach kept saying ‘slow and steady, eventually it’ll crack.’”

Pflueger, perhaps most famous for scoring the game winning tip over Stephen F. Austin in the second from of the NCAA tournament his freshman year, came up big once again in the late game stretch against Syracuse (23-14, 8-10 ACC).

After a low-scoring first half, the teams matched each other throughout the second. With under a minute, Orange sophomore Tyus Battle tied the game at 49 with a 3 at the top of the arc. He would go on to lose the ball with eight seconds left into the hands of Geben, who threw the pass forward to a running Gibbs. With two Syracuse players going for the block on Gibbs who threw the ball up toward the basket, Pflueger came crashing down the court past two Orange defenders, who were caught watching the action, to score the game-winning put back.

“That was just instinctual,” Pflueger said. “I saw T.J. running down the court and I saw their two defenders and knew both of them were gonna go for the game-saving block. … I was just hoping T.J. could the ball up somewhere … where I could go make a play on it.

Gibbs said that game was a coming together moment for the team, not only for the current season, but going forward that they would be OK.

Although Pflueger was the hero that day, Gibbs had his fair share of shining moments throughout the season. In his second year, he stepped up in his own right, moving into the starting position.

Gibbs said the transition from role player to primary ball handler began last spring and came with its bumps along the way.

“I think the biggest thing was my confidence … [Brey] called me into his office and told me that I’d be starting,” he said. “I thought ‘Are you sure? Me? You must have the wrong guy,’ but after a while it became a routine thing.”

Ayers said Gibbs dedicated himself to the gym and concentrated on getting shots up.

Gibbs vastly improved his 3-point shooting, making 40.3 percent of his shot from long range.

“[I] focused on implementing different drills that have him concentrate and having game-time reps in his drills, working on having game-time shots in a row,” Ayers said.

Gibbs widely credited the team’s support for his development as a shooter.

“Coach, Matt and Rex having confidence in me, if [I don’t] make one, maybe [I will make] the second … always telling me to keep shooting and eventually one will go in,” he said.

Although the Syracuse game seemed to settle nerves over the loss of its main leaders, reality soon caught up with the Irish, as they would go on to lose their next seven games, all against conference foes, five of which were by less than 10 points. Despite this crushing series, this stretch provided more players to move into the rotation and gain valuable experience.

“As a team we came together and said everyone needs to step up to try to fill the void of our two leaders,” Gibbs said of that January losing streak. “It may have seemed like I was the one to step up through points, but there was always someone else who had a big impact in the game that no one really recognized, whether it was [sophomore guard Nikola Djogo] hitting two 3s back-to-back against North Carolina or [sophomore forward John Mooney] going 6-6 at the Dean Dome.”

With their postseason hopes hanging in the balance, they traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia, for the final regular-season game to take on the Caveliers. Despite a triple-double recorded by Colson, who had returned to the court the game prior, Notre Dame still fell short of the victory, losing another nail-biter to Virginia (33-1, 17-1 ACC) 62-57.

Finally appearing back in full force, they prepared to head into the ACC tournament in need of a deep run to make the NCAA tournament. After beating Pittsburgh in the first round by three, Brey’s team met Virginia Tech in the second round for a classic March showdown. The Hokies (21-12, 10-8 ACC) built themselves a 13-point lead by halftime and only continued to add to that lead after the break, eventually stretching it to 21 in the second half. However, a barrage of 3-pointers and lockdown defense allowed the Irish to claw their way back into the game, eventually winning it 71-65.

The Irish would go on to lose the next round to Duke, ending their hopes of earning an automatic bid.

“For some reason, that whole game I knew we weren’t out of it,” Pflueger said. “We just had to make one of those runs we were capable of. Once we started hitting a few shots, everything started to flow … all of a sudden we’re winning. It was just one of those moments that I’ll always remember.”

Narrowly missing March Madness as the last team out, top-ranked Notre Dame would go on to lose to eventual champion Penn State in the NIT tournament.

Gibbs said although the outcome of the season was disappointing, he’d go back and do it all over to play one more game with the seniors.

“The whole attitude was that we were finally healthy for once,” he said. “It was a fun feeling … it’s something that I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life.”

Having only missed the tournament once in the last 11 years, Pflueger said the program is built on qualifying for the Big Dance.

“With all the injuries going on, we knew we wanted to fight through it as testament to our season,” Pflueger said.

“These guys have really been spoiled on making the NCAA tournament, and rightly so, they’ve earned that,” Ayers, a former player and captain for 2008-2009 team, said. “As a coach you kinda of have to shape it, you still have a lot to play for, you’re playing for the University, for each other and guys who want to continue playing afterwards. That’s kind of the focus we try to give these guys — a chance to play together because we all like being around each other.”