Notre Dame, Ind. – No matter how many positive qualities an opponent brings to the table, it’s usually not quite good enough against Virginia.
That’s why the Cavaliers have won 45 of their last 52 games. That’s why Virginia (15-0, 3-0) is the No. 3 team in the country and remains undefeated after a valiant but insufficient effort by the Irish Saturday night at Purcell Pavilion.
Virginia shot 57.7 percent from the field in the second half, overcame an eight-point deficit and offset Notre Dame’s 16-8 offensive rebounding advantage to claim a 62-56 victory over the No. 13 Irish (15-2, 3-1).
The loss ended Notre Dame’s 11-game winning streak and handed the Irish their first home blemish in 13 tries this season. The setback also snapped Notre Dame’s five-game winning streak against AP top 10 teams, dating back to late-December of 2010.
“(Virginia) played down the stretch like a team that’s won a championship,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, whose team fell for the first time since a 75-74 loss to Providence in Connecticut on Nov. 23 – 48 days ago.
“I thought early in the second half, maybe we’d get some breathing room. But they’re too good for that.”
Notre Dame turned a 27-24 halftime lead into a 34-26 advantage on a three-pointer by Pat Connaughton (21 points, eight rebounds) less than three minutes into the second half. The Cavaliers converted 15-of-26 second-half shots while the Irish staggered to just 34.5 percent (10-of-29) following a 10-of-30 shooting performance in the first half.
“They got to us in the post to get them started, and that got them confident,” said Brey of Virginia’s second-half performance. “They made some jump shots and made some drives on us to get them going.”
After Virginia made six of its first 10 shots, the Irish started playing defense, limiting the Cavaliers to 4-of-15 shooting amidst Notre Dame’s 21-8 run over the last 11:10 of the half.
Sophomore V.J. Beachem, compensating for the clampdown on Irish leading scorer Jerian Grant, made 4-of-7 shots from the field in the first half, including 3-of-5 from beyond the arc for 12 first-half points.
Grant – who missed his only shot in the first half – finished with just six points on 2-of-8 shooting to go with six assists. He’s now 3-of-16 with 14 points in the last two games after managing just eight points against North Carolina Monday night.
Doing most of the defensive work on Grant was 6-foot-5 junior Malcolm Brogdon.
“Malcolm has really taken pride in his individual on-ball slides,” said Virginia head coach Tony Bennett. “He’s strong and he’s big with those long arms and strong hands.
“I thought he had great support behind him. Guys were in position and helping (on Grant). But (Brogdon) just spread out with that length and Grant was going to have to make some tough shots.”
As it turned out, it was Beachem who made those shots in the first half. But he logged eight unproductive minutes in the second half, failing to score on 0-of-2 shooting.
“When (Grant) is driving to the right and I’m on the right side, my man has to help no matter what,” Beachem said. “Him kicking it out to me shows a lot of trust.”
Beachem, Connaughton and Demetrius Jackson (12 points) fueled Notre Dame’s 28-10 run from the 11:37 mark of the first half when the Irish trailed by 10 to its 34-26 lead at the 17:10 mark of the second half. Connaughton scored seven quick points to start the second half – two on a drive, two on a feed from Grant and three on a bomb.
But Notre Dame’s missed shots around the basket – due largely to Virginia’s defense and the fear of Virginia’s defense – ultimately spelled defeat for the Irish, as did their 6-of-12 shooting from the free-throw line.
“It was just a matter of they’re a great defensive team,” Connaughton said. “They got the timely stops they needed, the timely offensive rebounds they needed, and they hit big shots.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think it was as much us losing the game as it was them winning it.”
Irish big men Zach Auguste, Martin Geben, Austin Torres and Austin Burgett would disagree. They were a combined 2-of-12 with most of those 10 misses coming from point-blank range. Brey said after the game Notre Dame’s big men were beating themselves up for their inefficiency.
Steve Vasturia, playing most of the way after yielding minutes to Beachem in the first half, missed all five of his shots and finished scoreless in 25 minutes of action.
Brogdon scored 13 points for the Cavaliers while Darion Atkins took honors for the winning side with 14 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Justin Anderson – Virginia’s leading scorer coming into the game – was the third Virginia player in double digits with 11 points.
Virginia also benefitted from quality minutes off the bench from 6-foot-11 Mike Tobey (eight points, seven rebounds) and Marial Shayok (seven points). The two subs combined for 7-of-12 shooting from the field.
“We played our backsides off today and a good team got the better of us down the stretch,” Brey said. “(Virginia) played like a group that’s done it a little more than us at crunch time. I’m hoping in a month we’re more like them. Of course, we’ve shown that already.”
The Irish have to pick up the pieces quickly. They head to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech Wednesday. The Yellow Jackets are 0-3 in ACC play, but hungry to atone for its double-overtime loss to Notre Dame on Jan. 3 after leading by 11 in the first half.
“I have the utmost confidence in the leadership,” Brey said “Quite frankly, our leadership will not let this linger. I think we’ll move on quickly and be ready to play.”