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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Irish look to put last-second loss behind them against Virginia Tech

On Wednesday night, Notre Dame men’s basketball had perhaps their most disappointing game of the season. Playing against Georgia Tech in Atlanta, the Irish had a chance to knock off the Yellow Jackets for the second time this season and win their first road game of the year. The game went back and forth all night. And with the score knotted at 68-68 in the final seconds, it appeared destined for overtime, just like the first meeting between the two teams. But Yellow Jackets guard Lance Terry was the first to react to a missed last-second shot attempt, flying through the air to convert the game-winning putback as the buzzer sounded. With the defeat, the Irish dropped to 10-14 (2-11 ACC). Once again, Mike Brey's team faced the frustration of losing a very winnable game.

Fortunately or not, Notre Dame won’t have to wait long to get back on the floor and wash the bad taste out of their mouths. The Irish return to Purcell Pavilion on Saturday afternoon for another conference matchup. What helps their odds is that their opponent, Virginia Tech, travels to South Bend on the heels of an equally demoralizing result.

The Hokies (14-10, 4-9 ACC) entered this week with positive energy on their side. Virginia Tech jumped out to an 11-1 start on the year. But the Hokies followed it up with a dismal stretch that saw them lose seven straight conference games. After a 3-1 run that saw them pick up big wins against Duke, Syracuse and No. 6 Virginia, it felt like they had a late-season push in them.

That momentum came to a crashing halt on Wednesday. Just days after upsetting their in-state rival, Boston College upset them in Blacksburg on Saturday. The Hokies entered the game as heavy favorites. But they fell into a double-digit halftime hole that was too steep to climb out of. Just like Notre Dame, they’ll be eager for an opportunity to get back on track with a conference win.

Wednesday’s duel with Georgia Tech had many of the makings of an Irish victory. It started on the defensive end, where Notre Dame put together one of their strongest efforts of the season. After ceding 38 first-half points, they buckled down in the second period, allowing only 32. That has not typically been enough for opponents to outscore the Irish’s high-powered offense. But Georgia Tech was able to make it work.

Offensively, the Irish turned in a balanced effort, with all five Notre Dame starters scoring in double figures. However, the team struggled from long-range for the second straight game, converting just eight of 24 three-point attempts. The Irish have had difficulties all year in winning games when shots aren’t falling at their usual clip. Wednesday was no different.

Notre Dame's starting group was an unusual one, with their trio of freshmen all at varying levels of availability. Guard JJ Starling came off the bench for just the second time all season and was limited to 12 minutes of action while dealing with the stomach flu. In his place, forward Ven-Allen Lubin earned his first career start after returning from an ankle injury that had kept him out of the Irish’s previous game against Wake Forest. Lubin was expected to be a mainstay in Notre Dame’s starting five before suffering eye and nose injuries in the preseason. He took full advantage of his opportunity on Wednesday, posting a career-high 13 points along with seven rebounds.

Recovering from an inflamed Achilles injury, forward Dom Campbell did not play against Georgia Tech and is expected to remain out against Virginia Tech. Starling and Lubin should both be at full strength against the Hokies, which will provide some much-needed depth for a thin Notre Dame lineup.

On paper, Virginia Tech’s style of play closely mirrors that of the Irish. Both teams shoot well from distance, avoid turnovers and do not rebound at a high level. Like Notre Dame, the Hokies have made a habit of losing close games. None of their losses have come by more than 10 points, and six were decided by five points or fewer. They feature a trio of high-volume three-point shooters in Sean Pedulla, Grant Basile and Hunter Cattoor. Talented forward Justyn Mutts offers plenty of support as well. Basile exploded for a season-high 33 points against Boston College and will require significant attention from Notre Dame’s defense.

Saturday is a key opportunity for the Irish to earn a win before entering an extremely difficult final stretch of the season. After Virginia Tech, Notre Dame’s final six opponents all have winning records in ACC play. Those six games include matchups with Virginia, Clemson and Pitt, who are currently tied atop the ACC conference standings. There haven’t been many easy wins for Notre Dame this season, and there certainly won’t be during the coming weeks. That’s why it’s crucial for the Irish to take care of business against the Hokies at home.

To do so, they will need continued strong offensive play from graduate student forward Nate Laszewski, who has scored at least 16 points in three consecutive games. The Irish will also need another big performance from graduate student guard Dane Goodwin, who responded from a brief shooting slump with a 14-point, seven-rebound effort in Atlanta. Finally, Notre Dame will need bounce-back games from graduate student guards Cormac Ryan and Trey Wertz, who have shot the ball well all year but were a combined 3-15 against Georgia Tech. The winning formula remains the same for Notre Dame, even after another close loss. They’ll have to be at their best to flip that result around on Saturday.

Notre Dame hosts Virginia Tech at Purcell Pavilion on Saturday at 2 p.m. The game will be available on regional sports networks and the Notre Dame Radio Network.