Notre Dame is on the cusp of a championship in perhaps the most competitive year in Atlantic Coast Conference history.
The third-seeded Irish will play for the ACC title Saturday night at Barclays Center, facing fifth-seeded Duke at 9 p.m. The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.
“We're really proud to be playing for a banner tomorrow night,” head coach Mike Brey said.
The Irish got to the championship round with a 77-73 victory over second-seeded Florida State on Friday. As they did Thursday against Virginia in the quarterfinals, the Irish were stellar on both ends, shooting 47.5 percent and limiting the Seminoles to 26 first-half points to build a cushion.
FSU made a run to cut it to five with under a minute left, but Notre Dame held on to advance.
Senior guard Steve Vasturia had his best shooting game since Notre Dame’s first matchup with Florida State this season Jan. 18. Vasturia scored 18 points and connected on 4-of-5 3-point attempts, breaking out of a shooting slump.
He was just 12 for his last 58 from 3 entering Friday’s game.
Junior forward Bonzie Colson was stellar again, adding 18 points and six rebounds against the nation’s second-tallest team. Junior guard Matt Farrell ran the show, finishing with 15 points and six assists in 36 minutes.
Duke, ranked 14th in the country, has won three straight and will play its fourth game in four days Saturday. Should the Irish win, it would be perhaps their best win of the season.
Notre Dame missed out on a marquee non-conference win, letting games against Villanova and Purdue slip away. But Notre Dame has been stellar in ACC play, and with wins against Virginia and Florida State thus far in the ACC Tourney, the Irish keep bolstering their position heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Yes, Notre Dame seems to be peaking at the right time.
“It's safe to say we're definitely excited,” Farrell said of playing for an ACC title. “We’ve got to have a quick turnaround with this one because we play another really good team tomorrow. Like Bonzie said, we're excited. We're confident, and we're flowing really well offensively, and we're playing good defense. We're excited for tomorrow, and we're going to go in and have fun and do what we do.”
To capture their second league championship in three years, Brey’s team will need to go through another ACC blue blood. Notre Dame had no answers for the Blue Devils in the Jan. 30 matchup in South Bend, a game in which the Irish were out-rebounded 38-26 and saw junior guard Grayson Allen tally 21 points.
Brey has shaken his tag as a poor tournament coach. He was just 16-23 in conference tournament and NCAA tourney games his first 14 years at Notre Dame.
In the past three seasons — which includes an ACC title in 2015 and back-to-back Elite Eights — he’s 12-3.
Various NCAA Tournament bracket projections currently have the Irish as a five seed. A victory over Duke, which overcame second-half deficits against Louisville and North Carolina the past two games, might bump Notre Dame up a line.
Notre Dame got an unlikely contribution from sophomore wing Matt Ryan on Friday.
The 6-foot-7 Ryan — averaging 3.3 points and 0.9 rebounds in 7.5 minutes per game — scored 11 points in 13 minutes against the Seminoles. It was the most minutes Ryan played in a conference game all season.
Ryan connected on 3-of-4 3-pointers. It was the third double-digit scoring game of the season for Ryan and the sixth of his career.
With senior wing V.J. Beachem struggled with his shot, finishing just 1-of-6 from 3 and tallying just six points, Ryan filled the void.
The sharpshooter from Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., has taken a reduced role in the offense this season, typically spelling Vasturia and Beachem for a few minutes at a time. Friday night he was called upon to do more and took advantage.
“We got a great contribution from Matt Ryan tonight,” Brey said. “I sure hope we can ride him tomorrow and beyond.”
ODDS & ENDS
• Notre Dame did not score a field goal over the last 4 minutes and 47 seconds Friday. The nation’s best free-throw shooting team also went just 8-of-13 (61.5 percent) from the line, but was able to hold on.
• In its two wins over the Seminoles this season, Notre Dame limited them to a combined 8-of-30 from 3-point range (26.7 percent). FSU shot just 5-of-15 Friday.
• Another key in Notre Dame’s success against the Seminoles has been its defense against star freshman forward Jonathan Isaac. The 6-10 Isaac had had 23 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks in a January win over Notre Dame. In the rematch Feb. 11, he tallied four points and six rebounds. Friday, he was held to just five points on 2-of-7 shooting. He did grab 15 rebounds, but was not an offensive threat.
• Senior wing V.J. Beachem had seven rebounds Friday, his third-straight game with at least seven.
• FSU out-rebounded Notre Dame 41-23 Friday and dominated the points in the paint 42-24. But 18 turnovers negated those advantages.