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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

Irish look for big road win against No. 7 Virginia

Notre Dame men’s basketball will be on the road for an ACC matchup Saturday afternoon with No. 7 Virginia. In the last week and a half, the Irish have lost three games by a combined 12 points. Saturday provides another opportunity to flip the script and win away from home for the first time all season. It won’t be easy, though, as Virginia has looked like the strongest team in the ACC and enters the game on the heels of three consecutive wins.

Notre Dame will be seeking their first-ever win at Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena in their eighth trip to Charlottesville. The Irish have struggled to compete with the Cavaliers since joining the ACC in 2013, posting a 2-11 record in the teams’ meetings during that time frame. To be fair, the same could be said for most programs in the country, as Virginia has been one of college basketball’s best and most consistent programs of the last decade.

The Irish did get the better of the Cavaliers in their most recent matchup, pulling out a narrow 69-65 win at Purcell Pavilion last January. They were led by graduate students guard Dane Goodwin and forward Nate Laszewski, who each scored 16 points. Notre Dame will need similar standout performances from their two leading scorers if they hope to get the same result this year.

Last season, the Irish entered that Virginia game having won nine of their previous 10 games. They would finish the year with a 15-5 conference record, good for a share of second place in the ACC and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. It’s been a different story for the current Notre Dame squad. These Irish have won just one of their last nine, sending their record tumbling down to 10-16 — 2-13 in ACC play.

The good news for Notre Dame fans is that the Irish come into the game after a solid effort that saw them nearly come away with a road victory against Duke on Tuesday. The game was especially meaningful, given that it represented the last trip to Durham for Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey, who served as an assistant coach for the Blue Devils from 1987 to 1995. While his team fell 68-64, they pushed one of the ACC’s best teams to the limit in a challenging environment. It was a clear step forward for the Irish after suffering a string of uninspiring defeats in prior days.

The Irish as a whole had a tough shooting night against Duke, going 6-21 from three-point range. But a Goodwin scoring clinic gave them a massive boost. Coming off the bench for the first time this year, he finished with a season-high 25 points on an efficient 11-13 from the floor. He almost single-handedly kept Notre Dame in the game during the second half, especially during an incredible stretch in which he scored seven straight Irish baskets worth 17 points. That one-man run saw Notre Dame trim their deficit from 10 down to four. They would get within one in the final minute after a critical basket from freshman guard JJ Starling. But a Duke three-pointer on the ensuing possession allowed the Blue Devils to escape with a win.

Goodwin’s red-hot shooting was perhaps the primary factor in the Irish nearly pulling off the upset. But their defensive effort was almost as important. Just three days after ceding 93 points against Virginia Tech, Notre Dame buckled down, largely stifling a talented Duke team. They will need to bring that same intensity on Saturday. The Cavaliers are stout defensively, allowing 70-plus points just twice all season. Both teams like to play at a slow pace offensively. The Irish hope to connect on more shots than Virginia, who is second in the ACC in three-point percentage.

The Cavaliers (20-4, 12-3 ACC) have been one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. They make shots at a high rate, lead the conference in assists per game and rarely turn the ball over. Like Notre Dame, they don’t play with much size, but their dynamic backcourt makes them tough to stop. Starting guards Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman each average at least five assists per game and shoot around 40% from three-point range. It is vital for the Irish to prevent them from getting too comfortable and dictating the pace of the game. Jayden Gardner averages just over 11 points per game and is the Cavaliers’ primary interior presence. Armaan Franklin and Isaac McKneely have been among the ACC’s deadliest long-range shooters. Their balanced offense means that it will take a full-team effort from Notre Dame to slow them down.

Defeating a top-10 opponent is never easy, especially on the road. But Notre Dame has an opportunity on Saturday to come away with a true, signature win. The Irish will make the trip to Virginia as heavy underdogs. But if they get another standout performance from Goodwin — combined with locked-in defensive play and a bounce-back shooting game from the entire team — there’s no reason Notre Dame can’t keep the game close into the late stages. Maybe they even emerge with a much-needed victory.

Notre Dame will face off with Virginia on Saturday in Charlottesville. Tipoff is at noon, and the game is available on ESPN2.