As the sting of the West Virginia loss in the NCAA Tournament has finally worn off, it’s time to take a look back at the top 10 moments of the season.
#10 Farrell’s Three Clinches Win vs. Clemson
The Irish defeated Clemson 75-70 at home to move their ACC mark to 3-0. Combating a letdown after the big win over Louisville, ND came out of the gate slowly and had their hands full with the Tigers.
Brey actually benched Farrell during the first half because he was playing so poorly. The junior finally woke up in the second half and buried this three-pointer in the final seconds to push the lead to five and seal the victory.
#9 Vasturia’s Clutch Drive at Miami
In the contest following their victory vs. Clemson, the Irish found themselves in a slugfest at Miami. Notre Dame raced out to a double-digit lead in the first half, but Hurricanes came back and eventually took the lead in the final minutes.
The Irish again exemplified their toughness as they withstood the Miami run and raucous atmosphere and capped off the win with Vasturia’s driving layup. The bucket put ND up three with 11 seconds remaining and clinched a school record fourth straight win to begin conference play.
#8 Beachem’s Thunderous Dunk vs. Colorado
It seems as though the Legends Classic took place two seasons ago, but ND’s win over Colorado and subsequent victory against Northwestern provided the spring board for the rest of the season. Despite some anxious moments in the final minutes, the Buffaloes never truly threatened ND’s lead and Beachem’s dunk provided the highlight of the night.
It was this type of aggressiveness that made Beachem such a standout in the 2016 tournament and left Irish fans scratching their head when he would camp out on the perimeter through long stretches of the season.
#7 Second Half Surge vs. Wake Halts Losting Streak
In what would prove to be one of the most critical games of the season, the Irish found their offensive rhythm in the second half to defeat Wake Forest 88-81 and put a stop to their four-game losing streak.
Wake would eventually clinch an NCAA Tournament berth, so the win may have been better than it seemed at the time, but ND was going through the gauntlet of the ACC schedule and desperately needed some confidence and their second half performance did just that.
The Irish found themselves down five at the half and headed for their fifth loss in a row, but a 52-point second half carried ND to the much-needed victory. On the ensuing Saturday, the Irish would defeat Florida State in what may have been their most impressive performance of the season. The ship was officially righted.
#6 Farrell Behind-the-Back to Beachem
During ND’s stint as ACC members, the two bugaboos for the Irish came in the form of Syracuse and UVA. They were simply two riddles the Irish couldn’t solve. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone had given the Irish fits since the two programs battled it out as Big East foes, but Matt Farrell’s penetration led to the break down of the Orange’s zone and facilitated plenty lay-ups and good looks from the outside.
Farrell’s driving ability led to one of the biggest highlights of the season where he found Beachem driving with a behind-the-back dish and the senior provided the emphatic throw down.
#5 Farrell’s Diving Steal Seals Win at Virginia Tech
I’m not gonna lie, I had this penciled in for a loss before the game. The Irish were coming off a tight game at Miami Thursday night and had a quick turn around at Va Tech 36 hours later. ND came out of the gates hot and used a 21-2 run the power themselves to a 19-point first half lead. The Hokies, however, mounted a comeback in the second half as the effects of the quick turnaround were starting the manifest themselves on ND’s sluggish legs.
Virginia Tech eventually took the lead and with Cassell Coliseum rocking, the Irish demonstrated the poise of a veteran team and made the necessary plays down the stretch to pull out the win. No play was more instrumental to the win or more indicative of the team’s toughness than Farrell’s diving steal as the Hokies were hoping to steal some time in the final minute.
#4 Bonzie’s Great Game Capped Off with Air Vasturia
As mentioned above, the contest vs. Florida State’s may well have been Notre Dame’s best performance of the season. After the first ten minutes, the outcome of the game was never in doubt and the game gave the Irish a ton of confidence as they began the stretch run. The Irish fell to the ‘Noles in the first matchup earlier in the season in a roughly officiated game, but ND held FSU’s size and athleticism in check in the second meeting.
Colson led the Irish with a career-high 33 points and tallied 13 rebounds. The junior’s performance put Colson on the map nationally as one of the best players in the country and was even more impressive considering the size and athleticism of Florida State’s frontline. Colson was spectacular, but Steve Vasturia’s dunk in the closing seconds grabbed headlines as well.
#3 Farrell’s Last Second Steal and Three-Point Play vs. Northwestern
The Northwestern win might be the most under appreciated victory of the season. Not only did the Wildcats turn out to be a tournament team, but it was the first significant test ND faced this season and they responded exactly how you’d want a veteran-laden team to. From this game onward, the Irish expected to win tight games.
Notre Dame controlled the first half, but Northwestern got hot from the perimeter in the second and had a six point lead in the final minutes. The Irish maintained their poise and chipped away at the lead before Farrell came up with the critical steal and three-point play to give the Irish the lead for good.
#3 Monkey Off Back with Win vs. Virgnia in ACC Quarterfinals
The Irish finally defeated the one team that had alluded them during their tenure in the ACC. After UVA dominated the ND in South Bend earlier in the season, it seemed as though Brey would never be able to figure out Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense.
While Virginia was struggling down the stretch of the season, this victory in the ACC semifinals marked a huge mental hurdle ND had cleared, not to mention Rex Pflueger’s best dunk in an ND uniform. As a fan, I did not feel comfortable until I saw zeros on the clock.
#2 ND’s Dominance Over at Home vs. Louisville Continues
After ND’s last second win at Pitt (we’ll get to that in a moment), the Irish returned home to take on Louisville. The Cardinals, who were ranked #9 at the time, kept clawing themselves back into the game despite being outplayed for most of the contest. Louisville’s pressure bothered Notre Dame and was able to turn good defense into easy buckets.
The Irish held onto a three-point lead in the closing seconds when Vasturia hit a clutch runner to put ND up five and all but seal the game and send Pitino back to Louisville with his devil tail tucked between his legs.
#1 Vasturia’s Last Second Three to Win First ACC Game at Pitt
Although Pitt turned out to be one of the worst teams in the ACC, this victory set the tone for the Irish for the remainder of the season. The conference opener is always critical, but because of ND’s tough first half of the ACC schedule, stealing one on the road was important.
The Irish have struggled at the Oakland Zoo throughout the years and the New Year’s Eve crowd was as raucous as ever. The Panthers built a first half lead, but the Irish were able to build an eight-point margin midway through the second half on a run with mostly bench players on the floor.
The two teams exchanged body blows and the contest eventually went to overtime. Notre Dame found themselves trailing by two in the final seconds when a driving Farrell found Vasturia on the perimeter for three and the senior nailed the game-winning shot.
It is a testament to where Mike Brey has the program that going to the ACC Finals and advancing to the second round of the tournament seems to be par for the course. While Irish fans should not take the success for granted, it is fair to say that while this season was memorable and fun to be apart of from a fan’s perspective, the season can be characterized by missed opportunities as well.
Starting with the near-miss vs. #1 Villanova early in the season, the second half collapse against Purdue, and going all the way to the heartbreaking loss to Duke in the ACC Championship Game, there is a feeling of what could’ve been? The season was a success by any measure, but it was also so close to being legendary.
With the return of Farrell and Colson and important cogs like Pflueger and Gibbs, the Irish are again primed to contend for an ACC title. John Mooney and will see a larger role and the additions of D.J. Harvey and Nik Djogo will have a huge impact.
The last three years have established a winning culture in the program. Yes, Brey has had success throughout his tenure, but now the Irish expect to win big games – that’s something earned and emerges organically.
The natural next step for the program is a Final Four appearance. There are a million factors that go into a deep run in the tournament, but next season’s team will be as strong as any Brey has had in his time in South Bend.