Nothing else could quite explain Notre Dame’s extraordinary comeback win over Virginia Tech on Wednesday night in the 2018 ACC Tournament. Simply put, second-half performances such as the one the Fighting Irish put forth against the Hokies is why this month captivates college basketball fans across the country each year.
Mike Brey’s Irish (20-13, 8-10 ACC) were down by as many as 21 points in the second half, but they rallied by going on a 34-11 tear to end the game and score a 71-65 victory over VT on a snowy night in Brooklyn at Barclays Center to advance to the quarterfinals of the five-day league tourney.
It was a season-saving rally for ND, which still may need one more signature win to feel comfortable come Selection Sunday. All the Irish knew on Wednesday night, however, was that they were almost assuredly NIT-bound with a loss.
And that’s exactly what their fortunes looked like throughout a lifeless first half when ND failed to score on 19 of its final 22 possessions and shot just 8-of-32, and things weren’t much better in the opening few minutes of the second half.
But Virginia Tech, which was the ACC’s best shooting team during the regular season, seemingly couldn’t buy a bucket as it missed shot after shot over the final 20 minutes. The Hokies had a stretch in which they made only one bucket in 16 attempts, and they finished 4-of-16 from 3-point range.
Meanwhile, ND scored 50 points and shot 57.1 percent in the second half as the Hokies squandered a 21-point lead in the final 14 minutes. A key factor was Brey switching guard Matt Farrell off the ball and moving guard T.J. Gibbs, who finished with 13 points and seven assists, to the point.
The Irish got hot from downtown, and a technical foul called on Chris Clarke for pushing Farrell (game-high 22 points with four 3-pointers) in a dead-ball situation with 7:45 left didn’t help VT’s cause. Neither did Bonzie Colson’s contested, banked-in 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to give the Irish a 60-59 lead with two minutes left, which completed the comeback after ND was down 47-26.
Colson, a preseason All-American who went just 1-of-10 from the field in the first half, had arguably the biggest shot of the night despite being visibly fatigued playing his second game in as many days after returning just last week from a foot injury that sidelined him for half of the regular season. Despite its best player not being in great game shape and going just 4-of-14 from the floor, ND found a way to advance.
After the Colson trey, ND didn’t need another field goal to seal the win as it made 10 free throws the rest of the way to enhance its NCAA resume.
Notre Dame’s 13-point rally was the third-largest halftime deficit overcome in ACC Tournament history, and the 21-point comeback was the greatest in ND men’s basketball history, surpassing a 20-point rally versus Villanova on February 18, 2012. The win over the Hokies also marked the 14th 20-win season of Brey’s career, surpassing the previous high of 13 campaigns posted by Digger Phelps.
Now the question is whether the 10th-seeded Fighting Irish earned a bid to the Big Dance with Wednesday night’s win or whether the Irish need a triumph over fifth-ranked and second-seeded Duke in a Thursday quarterfinal to solidify their resume. The Blue Devils routed Notre Dame 88-66 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in late January, but the Irish were without Colson and Farrell. That loss came during Notre Dame’s seven-game slide.
Not working in the Fighting Irish’s favor is the fact that they went a month between wins in January and early February, but they are 3-1 since Colson returned from injury. ND also has a victory over Wichita State in November to its credit. But it also has losses to Ball State and Indiana.
Like most every college hoops season, there are several teams sitting on the bubble as the final days of Championship Week wind down. Oklahoma, Arizona State, Alabama and Marquette are just some of the squads hoping for an NCAA invite. Fellow ACC foes Louisville and Syracuse are also vying for spots.
“I’ve never been a big guy to campaign, but I think we really deserve to be in,” Brey told reporters after the win. “When I have my guys back, we’re a top-20 team, and I think people on that committee know that. I feel strongly that we should be part of it.
“We have another great opportunity to end all the drama of it [Thursday] night, but we need to get some rest.”
At this point, Brey and Co. would be ecstatic with a ticket to the First Four in Dayton. A win over the Blue Devils on Thursday evening, though, would almost assuredly guarantee passage into the Round of 64.
From the bubble one night to absolutely in on the next. Welcome to March.