NEW YORK -- Was it on purpose?
Only Bonzie Colson really knows, but he seemed convinced that his banked-in 3-pointer with two minutes left to give Notre Dame a one-point lead over Virginia Tech wasn’t an accident.
“Backboard is there for a reason,” Colson said after the game. “My dad taught me it’s your best friend. I shot it and I looked it in, and it went in.”
He repeated the same sentiment later on outside the Notre Dame locker room.
Except nobody really believes him.
“He didn’t call it,” senior guard Rex Pflueger said. “There’s no way he called it.”
At this point, though, it doesn’t matter. Notre Dame erased a 21-point second-half deficit Wednesday night to beat Virginia Tech 71-65 and keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive. Despite struggling for most of the game (4-for-14 from the field, 12 points), Colson hit the 3-pointer that gave the Fighting Irish a lead they wouldn’t relinquish -- and helped will them into a potential win-and-in spot against Duke in the ACC quarterfinal on Thursday.
Notre Dame came out flat and scored only 26 points in the first 26 minutes of the game, so head coach Mike Brey made the decision to switch point guard Matt Farrell off the ball and move TJ Gibbs to the point guard spot. Farrell finished with four 3-pointers and 22 points, while Gibbs went for 13 points and seven assists.
Suddenly, Notre Dame’s offense started flowing, and Virginia Tech went cold from the field. There was a 10:28 stretch late in the second half in which the Hokies hit just one shot from the field. On the flip side, the Fighting Irish missed just three shots from the field in the final 14:34.
“I think we really dug in defensively, and that helped us on the offensive end,” Farrell said. “When we defend, we think we can be a very good team. TJ did a great job because Coach kind of put me off the ball, and TJ was getting in the lane and making plays for guys and guys were hitting shots. That felt like us on the offensive end, but I think our defense was the thing that got us together.”
“The defense really translated over to the offensive end,” Pflueger added.
As it stands, Notre Dame has given the NCAA tournament selection committee a difficult decision on Sunday. The Fighting Irish went a full month between wins in January and early February, but they’re 3-1 since Colson returned from injury -- and also beat Wichita State in November when he was healthy. Unfortunately for the Irish, they weren’t a dominant group even when Colson was on the floor, losing to Ball State and Indiana.
They can likely erase all doubt by the end of Thursday, with a hot Duke team waiting in the quarterfinal.
“I've never been a big guy to campaign, but I think we really deserve to be in,” Brey said. “And I don't want to hear about one of the best 68. When I have my guys back, we're a top-20 team, and I think people in that committee know that. I feel strongly that we should be part of it.”
Another ACC team that set itself up for a win-and-in situation on Thursday was Louisville, which got out to a big lead against Florida State and held off a second-half run to win 82-74. The Cardinals have a fairly vanilla resume and are just 5-12 against Quadrants 1 and 2, but they don’t have any bad losses and have fairly solid metric numbers.
They can also avenge some demons on Thursday, as the Cardinals will face Virginia for a third time. Less than a week ago, Louisville suffered a shocking late loss to the No. 1 Cavaliers, giving up five points in the final second to lose by one.
“I'm sure this significantly helps our resume, but our focus now is just going to turn to Virginia, a team that we've lost to twice and who we've played well against,” Louisville coach David Padgett said. “So I know if we're able to come out and get a win tomorrow against the No. 1 team in the country that I would surely think they're in.”
Syracuse faced Notre Dame and Louisville’s situation a day early, as the Orange could have come close to punching a ticket by beating North Carolina on Wednesday. After beating Clemson in the season finale, they’ve fluctuated between the last team in and first team out for most of this week, and another marquee victory for the resume would have been a boost.
North Carolina jumped out to a double-digit first-half lead, though, forcing turnovers and crashing the offensive glass. Syracuse attempted to make a second-half run, but it fell short 78-59 -- and the Orange will now face a long wait until Selection Sunday.
"Every coach in the country thinks his team is a tournament team," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "We've got the best strength of schedule we've had in years. Our RPI was 42 going into today. With that RPI and strength of schedule, that's pretty good. We won at Miami, we won at Louisville. It'll be close. It just depends what the committee decides."
In terms of setting up the most drama moving forward, Wednesday went almost perfectly for the ACC. A third game between Duke and North Carolina is still on the table, while Notre Dame and Louisville have marquee opportunities to get an NCAA tournament berth by beating top-five teams on Thursday. Oh, and 12th-seed Boston College is playing as well as anyone in the conference and nearly beat quarterfinal foe Clemson earlier this season.
By the end of Thursday, the ACC could have 10 teams feeling comfortable for Selection Sunday.
It will be a crucial 12 hours for both Louisville and Notre Dame, but also for the league as a whole.
As Brey said, “We have another great opportunity to end all the drama of it tomorrow night, but we need to get some rest.”