BROOKLYN, N.Y. – When you’re taking on a program as talented and well-schooled as Tony Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers, achieving perfection against them is virtually impossible.
Case in point: Notre Dame’s 71-58 victory over the Cavaliers Thursday night in quarterfinals action of the ACC Tournament at the Barclays Center.
Notre Dame shot just 5-of-17 from three-point range. Virginia’s bench out-scored Notre Dame’s, 33-7. The Cavaliers had one more total rebound than the Irish and six more on the offensive glass.
There’s always room for improvement.
But as anyone who witnessed the game that sent Notre Dame to its third straight semifinals of the ACC Tournament can attest, the Irish (24-8) flirted with perfection, which was all the more meaningful against a nemesis like Virginia.
“That’s the best all-around game we’ve played against a great team in a while,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, whose Irish take on No. 2 seed Florida State (25-7) late Friday night after No. 1 seed North Carolina and No. 5 seed Duke square off at 7:00 p.m. ET.
“We guarded the heck out of them, and then we came back down on the other end and were really smart offensively. We were really efficient and really focused on both ends.
“When it gets to this time of year with this nucleus, their level of focus goes up. They believe it’s their time and they played like it.”
The Irish had lost all five of their previous games against the Cavaliers as a member of the ACC. None were closer than six points; one was as bad as 21. Only once had the Irish scored more than 60.
Virginia’s 14-point margin of victory over the Irish in the previous five encounters was thorough and convincing.
So, too, was this victory for Notre Dame.
When Rex Pflueger nailed a three-pointer 1:02 into the game, the Irish grabbed a lead they would not relinquish. The largest lead was 17 points, and when Pflueger threw down a reverse breakaway jam at the 18:18 mark of the second half to spark an 11-0 run, the advantage was double-digits the rest of the game.
Virginia – Notre Dame’s kryptonite – no longer had mastery of the Irish. The Cavaliers allowed 52.2 percent shooting and managed to convert just 38.6 percent of their own shots.
The offensive flow that has earmarked Brey’s squads en route to an ACC championship two years ago and back-to-back Elite Eights in the NCAA Tournament was back.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame out-defensed the masters of offensive disruption in ways that appeared impossible the previous five games against Virginia.
“We were out-played today,” Bennett said. “They were ready. You could see it. They were very much looking forward to playing us.”
Notre Dame’s defense was at peak efficiency as well. Virginia’s leading scorer – London Perrantes – was held to 1-of-9 shooting from the field, predominately by Pflueger with a little bit of V.J. Beachem and Matt Farrell mixed in.
Steve Vasturia -- assigned to hot-shooting Kyle Guy, who tossed in a career-high 20 points a night earlier against Pittsburgh – held the Virginia freshman to 0-of-8 shooting.
Virginia’s supporting cast provided the bulk of the Cavaliers’ scoring output. But with the Irish scoring at an incredibly efficient rate – Notre Dame shot 19-of-29 on two-point field goals (65.5 percent) – there was no way Bennett’s squad was going to slow down this freight train.
“We were really hungry and motivated to play these guys,” said Bonzie Colson, who tossed in a game-high 21 points and snagged 10 rebounds for his 19th double-double of the season.
“It’s been a tough route playing them in the past. I think we wanted it more. We got off to a great start, and that’s something Coach Brey has been emphasizing.”
Vasturia (14 points), Farrell (12) and Beachem (12) provided the balance, as did the tenacious Pflueger, whose impact on both ends of the court went well beyond his five points, four rebounds and three steals in 28 minutes.
“I’ve been here for two years and they had our number for two years,” Pflueger said. “Tony Bennett runs an amazing program. People compare our two programs, so it’s nice to show that we’re not just the little brother, that we’re equal.”
Farrell orchestrated the offense to perfection.
“I thought Matt’s decisions off the ball screen were great,” Brey said. “The smaller lineup was able to spread them out, and when you spread them out, you have a chance.
“If you play too compact, they just jam it in on you and it’s hard to score. Spreading them out with our smaller group helped.”
A day earlier at John Jay College in Notre Dame’s final tune-up, Farrell talked about the importance of attacking Virginia. Too often in the past, the Irish have probed and analyzed the situation, and ultimately accomplished little offensively.
Not this time.
“Attack mode, just being in attack mode,” Farrell said. “Nothing to lose, attacking guys off the dribble, spreading them out, and taking open looks when we got them.
“We feel we’re a really tough team to guard and they’re a good defensive team, so we went at them early and got the ball below the free-throw line. We were driving again. It was a really good offense today. We’re proud of the way we played.”
Going bigger worked well, too. Martin Geben, Notre Dame’s 6-foot-10 junior, played his third strong game in a row. His slam-dunk six minutes into the game – off a great no-look pass from Farrell – gave the Irish an early 10-point lead.
It would be his only basket of the game in 10 minutes of action, but his presence – which will be needed Friday night against Florida State’s length – has given the Irish some versatility that was missing, even amidst a recent four-game winning streak.
“I’m trying to be active and just react rather than think about things too much,” Geben said. “Just trying to be a good teammate, trying to be reliable on the defensive end, and doing whatever it helps us get the win.”
Maybe it wasn’t quite perfection, but it sure looked and felt like it.
“The key was 40 minutes,” Vasturia said. “We did it the whole time. Coach wanted us to be good on every possession on both ends of the floor.
“I’m pretty sure we were.”