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Saturday, June 15, 2024
The Observer

Irish fall in first round of ACC Tournament to Virginia Tech

It was always a long shot that Notre Dame men’s basketball would go on a miracle run to win five games in five days and claim the ACC championship. But for much of their first-round matchup with Virginia Tech on Tuesday night, it looked like the Irish might extend their season and the tenure of head coach Mike Brey for at least one more game.

That was ultimately not meant to be. A late run guided the Hokies to a 67-64 victory and a berth in the second round of the ACC Tournament. The Irish conclude their season with an 11-21 record while remaining winless away from home.

After suffering a 23-point loss against Clemson on Saturday and with first-year guard JJ Starling remaining sidelined with a knee injury, there were worries that Notre Dame could come out flat in Greensboro. The game’s opening minutes did nothing to assuage those fears, as Virginia Tech jumped out to a quick 7-0 advantage. 12 early points courtesy of graduate student guards Marcus Hammond and Cormac Ryan kept the Irish in the game. But they were still struggling to find consistent offense. When the Hokies scored nine straight points to take a double-digit advantage, they seemed poised to grab control of the game.

But Notre Dame understood a loss would end the college careers of their six graduate students, including all five of Tuesday’s starters. So, the Irish continued to fight. Graduate student guard Dane Goodwin and Hammond connected on back-to-back three-pointers. When junior forward Matt Zona drilled a third consecutive three — just his fourth of the season — to trim the Virginia Tech lead to 26-23, it felt like the momentum was on Notre Dame’s side. They would carry that energy through the rest of the first half. The Irish closed the frame on an 18-7 run to end the half down just one.

Following a relatively low-scoring first half, both teams came out of the gates firing in the second. Hammond led all players with 14 points before halftime and did not slow down. He gave Notre Dame a 34-33 advantage with a mid-range jumper on the first possession of the half. A few minutes later, he knocked down another three-pointer. But Virginia Tech seemingly had an answer for every Irish bucket. Much of their production came from forward Grant Basile, a graduate transfer from Wright State whom Notre Dame had sought to add to their roster in the offseason. When the teams met earlier in the year, Basile tied his season-high with 33 points in a narrow Hokies win. He was just as impactful Tuesday, leading his team with 20 points and making several critical plays down the stretch.

The margin remained within one possession for the first 12 minutes of the second half. The lead changed hands several times, but neither side could get enough stops to gain an edge. With the Irish leading 52-51 and just over seven minutes remaining, Zona sank his third three-pointer of the night. The shot sent the Notre Dame bench into a frenzy and gave the Irish their largest lead of the night. After Basile answered with a dunk, Ryan hit another three-pointer for Notre Dame, stretching the lead to five. Soon after, Ryan scored again, boosting his point tally to 18 and giving the Irish a 60-56 advantage entering the final media timeout.

Late-game woes have been the story for Notre Dame all season. In what proved to be their final chance to flip the script and pull out a narrow win, they remained unable to get over the hump. The final three minutes of the game belonged to the Hokies.

The two teams traded baskets before Virginia Tech’s Rodney Rice buried a clutch three-pointer to make the score 62-61 in Notre Dame’s favor. After an Irish turnover, the Hokies scored in transition. Brey quickly called timeout, with the Irish down one about a minute after leading by four.

A pair of free throws from graduate student guard Trey Wertz would put the Irish back in front. But three unanswered Virginia Tech points gave them a 66-64 advantage with 30 seconds remaining. Seeking a game-tying basket, Ryan found a lane to the rim but could not finish, forcing Notre Dame to foul. Virginia Tech’s Sean Pedulla, one of the ACC’s best free throw marksmen, gave the Irish hope by going just one of two from the line and keeping the score within one possession. But graduate student forward Nate Laszewski’s last-second three-point attempt was off the mark, sealing another heartbreaking defeat for the Irish.

With Notre Dame’s loss comes not almost certainly only the end of the season, but the end of an era. In addition to Brey stepping down after a program-record 483 wins over the course of 23 seasons, the Irish roster will look completely different next year. The program will lose six graduate students, including five of the seven players who entered the game Tuesday. Their final season in blue and gold has not gone as planned. However, many of these players formed Notre Dame’s backbone for the last several years and came within minutes of reaching the Sweet Sixteen last season.

For now, Notre Dame will face the disappointment of dropping another game they very easily could have won. They will say goodbye to their departing players and legendary coach. And then they will turn their attention to an eventful offseason that will set the tone for the program’s future.