BROOKLYN – Virginia, unable to get stops when it most needed them, under coach Tony Bennett, against Notre Dame. Talk about unfamiliar territory.
But that was precisely the novel quandary the Cavaliers found themselves in Thursday night, as the Irish wiped Virginia off the floor with a 71-58 win in the ACC Tournament Quarterfinals at the Barclays Center. That swept away 36 years of winless basketball against the Hoos, snapping a 10-game losing streak dating to 1981.
“We were outplayed today,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who had owned a 5-0 record against Notre Dame prior to the loss. “We were behind in the play. They really were moving the ball well. They’re hard to guard. They played well, and we didn’t have one of our better games. We have to learn from it but pick up and move on. Just were a bit lethargic.”
For a program that hadn’t beaten Virginia since Ralph Sampson donned a Cavalier uniform, Notre Dame didn’t look like a team lacking confidence against the Hoos. Spear-headed by Bonzie Colson’s double-double of 21 points and 10 rebounds – after one bucket early on, he appeared to have an exchange with Bennett as he ran past him heading down the court – the Irish had UVA’s Pack-Line defense on the run.
Notre Dame picked it apart to shoot 52.2% , the fifth team to surpass the 50% plateau this season against the Hoos. The Irish scored 34 points in the paint and 13 points off 10 Virginia turnovers, all uncharacteristic numbers for a Bennett-coached team.
“I think we were really hungry and motivated to play these guys,” Colson said. “It’s been a tough road playing them in the past, so I think we wanted it more.”
The Irish stormed out of the locker room to begin both halves. They slammed UVA 10-2 early before the Hoos stopped the bleeding and cut the deficit to six, 32-26, at the half. But then Virginia didn’t score for the first 5:21 to start the second half, and in that time, the lead had stretched to 43-26.
“I thought we played like we wanted it so bad in South Bend [in Virginia’s 71-54 win on Jan. 24], we tied ourself up in knots,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “I tried to keep us a little looser today. But they wanted to beat this program. This program has kind of had our number. So it’s great to get the first one when you’re advancing in a tournament.”
During that second-half run came perhaps the most emblematic play of the night. Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger picked off a perimeter pass from freshman Kyle Guy, who had a forgettable night following a memorable postseason debut, and garnered a few style points with his reverse slam on the other end. That pushed the Irish back to a double-digit margin, 36-26.
“I think they just came out with a lot more energy than we did,” Cavalier junior Devon Hall said. “We were kind of lethargic, like Coach [Bennett] said. We weren’t as good as we usually are at our ball screen [defense]. So it was a little frustrating for us. And they just came out with a lot more pace and effort than we did.”
In advance of this game, Virginia players cited their defense as the reason they’d been so stingy against the Irish under Bennett. Even as the Cavaliers found some offense to hang around in the second half, however, they couldn’t get the key stops to spark a run. Senior London Perrantes acknowledged the missing defense was discouraging.
“I don’t think our ball-screen defense was good at all,” said Perrantes, who went 1-of-9 shooting from the floor for 3 points to go along with 3 turnovers and 2 assists. “[Irish point guard] Matt Farrell was able to throw the ball out of our – I guess we tried to trap a ball screen when it happens, and we didn’t do that at all today, which allowed open shots and allowed us to be behind the play, which is tough. So yeah, I mean, that was a huge part of it.”
He added: “Obviously, we’re not going to make every shot, but I think giving up some easy looks kind of takes the air out of us, and knowing that we’re not supposed to or we shouldn’t be giving up easy looks kind of messes with our heads, I guess you could say, especially with some of the young guys.”
One of those young guys was Guy. He went scoreless, missing all of his eight field-goal tries, less than 24 hours after matching a career-high with 20 points against Pitt. Hall and Darius Thompson picked up some of the slack as each scored 12 to lead the Wahoos. Ty Jerome added 10, and UVA also got a promising 10 points from Marial Shayok, who had shot 2 of 12 in his previous four games.
“He’s had a little bit of a knee issue or a quadricep issue,” Bennett said of Shayok. “He looked like he was moving better, and he gave us a lift. … I was happy to see some of his offensive prowess come back.”
The Cavaliers need will need quite a bit more prowess on both ends to advance in the NCAA Tournament. As of late Thursday night, ESPN bracket expert Joe Lunardi projected Virginia as a 5-seed in the Midwest Region.
“We’ve got to find ways to guard a little better when we get in that situation, handle those four-guard lineups, and just keep battling,” Bennett said. “There’s not a whole lot – we don’t throw it inside and score a ton, but we’ve got to just keep doing what we’ve done and have a great however many days prep it is for the NCAA Tournament.”