Matt Farrell played it coy; Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson and his Hokie teammates paid the price.
With the Irish leading by three points and the clock ticking down under a minute Saturday at Cassell Coliseum – where the Hokies had won 15 in a row – Virginia Tech tried to save a few seconds by rolling the ball up the backcourt.
Farrell, the instigator of all things good for Notre Dame (16-2, 5-0) since the Legends Classic in Brooklyn Thanksgiving week, pretended to be giving and getting information from the Irish bench.
When Farrell realized that an unsuspecting Robinson had let down his guard, the Irish junior made a dash and lunge for the basketball. Farrell came up with it and Robinson went sprawling. Farrell scrambled to his feet and dribbled to the rim, where he dumped it off to T.J. Gibbs for the basket and a five-point lead that would end in a 76-71 victory.
The win marked Notre Dame’s third on opposing ACC courts in as many games, adding to the one at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh on Dec. 31 and the other just two nights earlier at the Watsco Center in Coral Gables against Miami to snap the Hurricanes’ 21-game home winning streak.
“They’re really good and we know how good they are in this building,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey following the victory over Virginia Tech. “They made a run and I love how we answered.
“That’s three road games where we’ve finished. We really believe that we can win close games. It’s a great psychological advantage for us right now.”
With the victory over the Hokies, not only did the Irish elevate themselves to the No. 1 spot in the conference at 5-0 – taking over sole possession of first place as Florida State fell at North Carolina – they remained the only unbeaten team on the ACC road.
The Irish are on fire away from Purcell Pavilion. Since the 2014-15 season when Notre Dame made the first of back-to-back trips to the NCAA’s Elite Eight – the only team in the country to do so – the Irish are a sparkling 14-7 on opposing ACC courts.
The Irish were 7-2 away from Purcell Pavilion in 2014-15 with victories over No. 8 North Carolina and No. 16 Louisville. Notre Dame slipped to 4-5 on the road last year, falling decisively at Virginia, Syracuse, Miami and Florida State, but claiming a victory at No. 9 Duke.
At 14-7 in its last 21 ACC road games, only North Carolina and Virginia – also 14-7 – have matched Notre Dame’s success away from home. During that same span, Duke is 12-9, Louisville is 11-9, and last year’s Final Four participant – Syracuse – is 7-13.
In the last 21 road games, Notre Dame has won at North Carolina, Duke, Louisville, Miami, Pittsburgh, N.C. State, Clemson twice, Virginia Tech twice, Boston College twice, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech.
“We’re mature, we’re stable, we’re poised,” Brey said. “We have great mental toughness in Matt Farrell, Steve Vasturia and Bonzie Colson. I’d add Rex Pflueger, and T.J. Gibbs is starting to join that party.
“That really helps us believe. There’s no question that a Farrell and Vasturia set a great toughness tone for us at the end of games.”
It wasn’t always this easy on the road in the Big East for 13 seasons under Brey and now in the fourth year as a member of the ACC. Brey’s Irish were 51-68 in conference road games in his first 13 seasons with the Irish, certainly a respectable number with .500 or better marks in seven of those seasons and an average of four victories per season away from home.
But no one in the ACC has been better than the Irish when it comes to displaying the will to win on the road the last two-plus seasons, particularly in the waning moments of games.
“Now it’s a group that kind of likes playing on the road and likes playing in front of tough crowds,” Brey said. “They kind of like that challenge, and they certainly accepted it (at Virginia Tech).”
The Irish will be hard-pressed to improve upon their impressive road record Wednesday when they visit Florida State at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, where the Seminoles have won 14 straight.
Anyone want to wager against the Irish?