Notre Dame won ugly Sunday night against Georgia Tech, notching a 64-60 win over the Yellow Jackets at Purcell Pavilion.
“We were able to escape tonight because of our defense,” head coach Mike Brey said.
For the first time since Brey moved to a five-out, four-guard lineup Feb. 7, Notre Dame finished with fewer than 80 points.
The shots weren’t falling for the 21st-ranked Irish on Sunday. After shooting just 40.4 percent in its Jan. 28 loss to the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta, Notre Dame made just 20 of its 57 attempts Sunday, a 35.1 percent clip. The Yellow Jackets are rated as the No. 7 team nationally in defensive efficiency according to KenPom. They played like that Sunday.
“They’re really good defensively,” junior guard Matt Farrell said. “They make a lot of people struggle, they change defenses, they’re long, they’re athletic and they play gaps really well. They’re a really good team.
“We knew coming in it’d be a grind out win and we knew we had to defend well enough to win.”
So the Irish had to counter with their own defensive effort. Notre Dame held the poor-shooting Yellow Jackets to just 44.8 percent and gave up just three three-pointers.
“When some frustrating stuff happens, and this game is going to be a hard game, are we going to be mentally tough enough, like we’ve been most of the season to be where we’re at, to fight through that and go back and guard?’” Brey said of his pregame message to the team. “I knew we’d have empty offensive possessions against them, they’re just too good defensively.”
The Irish improved to 22-7 overall and 11-5 in the ACC. They have two regular season games remaining: Wednesday at home against last-place Boston College and Saturday at Louisville.
Brey’s squad is currently in a three-way tie for second place in the league with Florida State and Louisville. If the Irish win their last two games, they are guaranteed a top-four finish in the ACC, meaning a double bye in the conference tournament.
“You have a real shot to get to Saturday night if you get the double bye,” Brey said. “If you don’t get the double bye, it’s really, really hard to do that. We control our destiny to get into that territory, and that’s more what we talk about.”
Notre Dame did make 10 three-pointers Sunday, led by a 3-of-3 effort by star junior forward Bonzie Colson. Senior wing V.J. Beachem, playing with the flu, Brey said, was just 2 of 9 from deep.
“We had clean looks we didn’t make,” Brey said. “We had some corner jump shots against their 1-3-1. Steve, we want those guys taking them all night. Now if they’re not going, you’ve got to fight that frustration.
“Now you’ve got to go back and guard that action, because they run it for 25 seconds. It’s physical, it’s grinding, it’s exhausting.”
Notre Dame led 34-28 at the half, but was limited to just 28.6 shooting in the second half. The key in holding off the Yellow Jackets (16-13, 7-9) was getting to the foul line. Notre Dame made 11 of 14 attempts from the line in the second half after attempting just four free throws in the first half.
It’s something about Georgia Tech.
“Ever since I’ve been here, Georgia Tech’s always been a struggle,” Colson said. “It’s the way they play defense, it’s hard to get in a rhythm. Our plays and some of our movement really challenges that.”
There is value, however, in getting a victory on an off night, the players said.
“Tough night, and it speaks to our tenacity, our toughness and just doing whatever it takes to win,” said Farrell, who scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half. “When it came to the second half, it was just about making winning plays for each other.
“It wasn’t about whose scoring, it’s about making sure we got out of here with a win.”
COLSON THE MVP
Playing against one of the premiere shot blockers in the country in Georgia Tech junior Ben Lammers, Colson had another big night. The 6-5 Colson finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds, his 17th double-double of the season.
In addition to his scoring near the basket, he loosened up the Yellow Jackets’ stingy defense with his trio of three-pointers.
“He was smart enough to know it’s kind of hard to score on Lammers around the paint, so he shot some jumpers on him and took him out there and kind of found different ways to do it,” Brey said. “He set a great tone for us.”
Colson is averaging 16.7 points and 10.5 rebounds entering the final two-game stretch.
“He’s playing as well as anybody in the country and anybody in our league,” Brey said.