V.J. Beachem noticed as early as the 12-minute mark of the second half that Virginia Tech was rolling the basketball up the backcourt to preserve time on the clock.
Notre Dame junior point guard Matt Farrell noticed it too. He was waiting for the most strategic moment of the game to employ a tactic that would seal what ultimately became a 76-71 victory over the Hokies.
That moment came with 45 seconds remaining and the Irish clinging to a 70-67 lead.
Gesturing to the Notre Dame bench to create an illusion in the mind of Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson, Farrell pounced. He got his hands on the basketball, fumbled around to get a grip, and then scrambled to his feet with out traveling.
Farrell dribbled to the basket and dumped it off to T.J. Gibbs for the game-clinching basket at raucous Cassell Coliseum.
“It could have been really bad or really good,” said Farrell, who finished with 14 points – 11 in the second half – and the most crucial of five assists with 41 seconds remaining.
“I was kind of looking over at coach and making hand gestures, just to get Robinson to not look at me or think about it. I don’t know if that’s a travel or not. I knew my shot would have gotten blocked by (Chris) Clarke. Luckily T.J. was yelling, and I know someone else was behind me.”
The Irish under head coach Mike Brey -- now spanning 17 seasons -- have been known for their free-flowing offense, offensive efficiency, exceptional assist-to-turnover ratio and free-throwing shooting.
So far this season, the Irish have added a defensive presence with several “kills” down the stretch to close out close games and a significant increase in steals.
Last season, the Irish averaged 5.4 steals per game in 36 outings (197 total). So far this season, the Irish are averaging 7.3 steals per game (133 total), including a combined 17 in back-to-back road games against Miami (9) and Virginia Tech (8).
“That’s Matty being a high basketball IQ guy,” Brey said. “He was lining it up, and man did he pick a spot to do it. It certainly epitomizes everything that he is. He gives our group a toughness look.
“It’s just a flat-out fumble recovery, and then to have the athletic ability to get up…It was close to a walk, but I think he put the dribble down before he got all the way up, and then he had the presence of mind to scoop it back to T.J.
“Just a heckuva play by a guy who’s really confident and has been amazing in the moment, at crunch time.”
It’s those kind of plays that have earmarked Notre Dame’s gritty play en route to a 5-0 start in league play, including a 3-0 mark in road excursions to Pittsburgh, Miami and Virginia Tech.
Notre Dame is 3-0 on the road in ACC play; the rest of the league is 9-25.
It’s no wonder Farrell is on the tip of the tongues of college basketball analysts who have called him the most improved player in college basketball.
“It was a heckuva play, one of those game-winning plays that we’ve talked about,” said senior Steve Vasturia, who joined Gibbs and Beachem in trailing the play and putting themselves in a position to receive a pass from Farrell.
“It’s a play that resembles how we’ve played all season long and why we’ve been successful. Guys are not afraid to dive on the floor or take a charge.”
Farrell tried a similar move in high school three times. One time, he missed the ball and crashed into the opponent for a foul. A second time, he was whistled for a foul that Farrell calls “controversial.” A third time, he successfully came up with the basketball, scrambled to his feet and converted the layup.
“It just represents exactly who he is,” Beachem said. “That tough grittiness and willingness to do anything to help our team.”
The risky play brought out the emotion of his teammates who watched in awe…and with some trepidation.
“I saw him walking up and looking over at the bench and pretending, but we all knew what he was trying to do,” said sophomore Rex Pflueger. “When he made a lunge, everyone’s heart stopped like, ‘Please get the ball.’ For him to get up without traveling was incredible.”
Added Beachem: “When he did it, I was like, ‘Yo, it’s lit!’”
The best perspective of all belonged to Gibbs.
“When we saw it we were all a little surprised,” Gibbs said. “But when he got up, we all just followed him to the basket. I thought he had (the layup). I didn’t know what he was going to do with it, but when I saw Clarke jump, I was ready for it.
“Matt has done that a couple times this year. It was a great hustle play.”
No one enjoyed it more than Farrell.
“That was really fun, especially there,” said Farrell of Virginia Tech’s Cassell Coliseum, where the Hokies had won 15 in a row. “That arena was crazy. It was really loud, so the adrenalin after that was just awesome.
“Running back and looking at the bench and seeing everybody was fun. As you can tell, we have a lot of fun on the road.”
It was the kind of play that has epitomized Notre Dame’s early-season success, particularly away from Purcell Pavilion.
“Those are the plays you have to make on the road and in this league,” Farrell said. “Making fearless plays down the stretch is how you’re going to get wins in this league.”
Wins and a highlight for the ages.