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Markus Burton shows off two-way ability in Notre Dame MBB win

Notre Dame men's basketball was led by freshman guard Markus Burton (left) on both ends of the floor in Saturday's win vs. Virginia Tech. Burton led the team in points, assists and steals.
Notre Dame men's basketball was led by freshman guard Markus Burton (left) on both ends of the floor in Saturday's win vs. Virginia Tech. Burton led the team in points, assists and steals. (Matt Cashore, USA TODAY Sports)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Virginia Tech hit the ground running to start Saturday's ACC game at Purcell Pavilion.

But so did Notre Dame men's basketball.

The score was tied at 30 apiece with under five minutes left in the first half — and the Irish found themselves halfway to 60 points — a mark they've hit only twice in their last seven games.

Unlike so many of ND's recent losses, head coach Micah Shrewsberry's squad matched the opponents' intensity out of the halftime break — a 9-0 run to be exact — and kept their foot on the gas pedal en route to a 74-66 win.

The victory ended a seven-game losing streak for the host Irish (8-16, 3-10 ACC), the longest drought without a win for Shrewsberry in his first season in South Bend. While the offense scored its highest point total since Jan. 9, it was Notre Dame's defense — led by freshman guard Markus Burton with six steals — that sealed the deal.

Burton, who scored a team-high 16 points against the Hokies (13-10, 5-7) and is Notre Dame's leading scorer at a little over 16 points per game, said the confidence to defend the Hokies' veteran backcourt tandem of Sean Pedulla and Hunter Cattoor came from what the fans don't see.

"I think my confidence is starting to come along a lot due to me playing all these high-level guards," Burton said. "Seeing where I'm at when I'm playing these guards and where my competition level is. All the guards I've played ... [I'm] pretty much right there with them."

"And just the work that I'm putting in off-camera. I'm in the gym 24/7 ... it's just starting to show, and the defensive part is just me just being locked in and doing what I'm told to do."

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Burton primarily guarded Pedulla, and held the junior guard to 4-of-12 shooting from the field and coaxed six turnovers. Meanwhile, Burton played efficiently for the Irish offense by tying a career-high in assists (eight) and only committing one turnover himself.

Shrewsberry said Notre Dame's defensive scheme involves all five players on the court defending pick-and-rolls and said the man who is guarding the ball handler, which is frequently Burton, is responsible for having active hands.

"Pedulla's one of the toughest covers in this league, and he guarded him for much of the game until they got a couple of fouls late and we switched it," Shrewsbery said. "But he did a good job of keeping him in front and having active hands.

"Just his floor game and how he just constantly kept getting around, finding the right guy, like making the right plays. As simple as it sounds, it's not ... it's tiring. When those big dudes are up there hard hedging you and bumping you and hitting you, but he's doing it over and over again. And he's guarding one of the best players on their team on the other end."

The Irish held the lead for over 20 minutes of the game, but the teams swapped the lead five different times and were tied on six different occasions. ND's defense held Virginia Tech to 27 second-half points, which Shrewsberry said was monumental in the final outcome.

Freshman guard Braeden Shrewsberry and sophomore forward Kebba Njie were the only other players to score in double-figures — with 12 and 11 points, respectively — but ND's role players also stepped up. Senior forward Matt Zona scored five points in a span of 30 seconds off the bench in the first half, and junior guard Julian Roper II hit a tone-setting 3-pointer to give the Irish a 47-44 lead early in the second half.

"There were times I looked out there, and I'm like, 'Man, we got four freshmen and an 18-year-old sophomore that are out there playing," coach Shrewsberry said. "But, like with that, I thought everybody came in and really contributed [and] did good things for us ...

"This team has shown resiliency with how we keep showing up and playing every day. It was awesome to see the crowd be resilient for us and show up in the way that they did today. And sometimes that really spurs you on when it's tough."

Njie said it was difficult in the last month to keep showing up, but he said that served as motivation for the Irish on a daily basis.

"We're fighters. I think that's who we are as people," Njie said. "We never give up, so we going to keep showing up every single day. I think that's our motto this year. Just to keep showing up every single day no matter what it looks like. Whether we lose, whether we win, we're always showing up and doing what we're supposed to."

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The little details

During the losing streak, Shrewsberry said ND's coaching staff adjusted their beginning routine to practice and dedicated 25-30 minutes at the start of each session to improving specific skills within different small group drills.

"You're starting to see it a little bit, like attacking closeouts," he said. "Now you see J.R. [Konieczny], now you see Carey [Booth] attacking closeouts and getting a bucket. We worked on attacking a closeout to a post up, so now you see Julian Roper turn his back and get into the post and settle down and get a bucket. We've worked on finishing. Kebba's not perfect, but like he's 4-for-7."

"Those are big, but the time that we take in practice has been really key. And like we said, we want to keep getting better. I get to see them every day, so I know that they're making steps.

"Now, to get a win on top of that makes it even more special, because I see how hard they're working. They're listening. They're trying to do what we're talking about."

Notre Dame's win was significant, because it didn't only end its overall losing streak, but also its losing streak against Virginia Tech, which the Irish hadn't beaten since March 2020. Shrewsberry said the players had music going when he entered the locker room.

"I could hear them before I saw them," he said "They had music playing and they were cheering and they were so happy. They deserve every bit of it. We're gonna keep plugging along.

"We're gonna keep trying to get better, but they deserve to come out on top and celebrate ... thank you to all the fans that stuck with us man, because it was cool to see."

Notre Dame returns to action Wednesday vs. Georgia Tech (10-14, 3-10 ACC). The Irish won the first game of the season series in overtime, 75-68, last month.

Box Score: Notre Dame 74, Virginia Tech 66

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