Notre Dame's comeback win over Virginia Tech on Wednesday in the ACC tournament looked improbable. The Fighting Irish had played horribly during the game's first 28 minutes and trailed by 18 points.
But then something clicked.
Notre Dame hit timely shots and made key stops down the stretch. The team went on a 17-3 run after being down by 18, shrinking the deficit to four. Then the Irish went on a 14-4 run to go up by six points with 36 seconds left before winning 71-65.
The second-seeded Duke will play the 10th-seeded Notre Dame at 7 p.m. Thursday.
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Notre Dame senior forward Bonzie Colson, who had two points on 1-for-10 shooting in the first half, finished with game with 12 points (4-for-14) and seven rebounds. His contested 3-pointer from the wing gave the Fighting Irish a one-point lead with 2:02 left in the game. It was Notre Dame's first lead since Virginia Tech tied the game with 10:39 left in the first half.
Here are five takeaways from the Fighting Irish's win and what Duke must do to stop them:
1. Notre Dame is confident
Colson, the ACC's preseason pick for ACC Player of the Year, broke his foot on Jan. 2 in a practice. He missed the next 15 games and returned on Feb. 28 in a game against Pitt. Since his return, the Fighting Irish have won three of four games, including the two wins in the ACC tournament. The only game Notre Dame lost was to No. 1 Virginia 62-57 on March 3 in Charlottesville, Va.
The 18-point comeback will only increase the team's confidence as it plays Duke on Thursday. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said despite a 20-13 record, he believes his team deserves to be in the NCAA tournament's 68-team field.
Without Colson during that 15-game stretch, Notre Dame went 6-9, losing seven consecutive games. Senior guard Matt Ferrell, the Fighting Irish's leading scorer (16.8 ppg), also missed five games. With Colson and Ferrell in the lineup, Notre Dame is 14-4.
"When I have my guys back, we're a top-20 team, and I think people in the committee know that," Brey said. "I feel strongly that we should be part of it."
2. This isn't the same Notre Dame team Duke beat Jan. 29
Duke and Notre Dame played once this season, at Cameron Indoor Stadium a few weeks ago. The Blue Devils won that game 88-66. But the Fighting Irish were without Colson and Ferrell that game.
Duke took advantage of Notre Dame's lack of scoring options in the second half. Notre Dame had closed the lead to six points, 58-52, with 12:21 left in the game. But Duke ended the game on a 30-14 run.
"With how close we are as a team and what we've gone through, it obviously wasn't easy to watch," Ferrell said. "But we tried to stay together. And we went down by 20-something. And there's three things you can control: Effort, attitude and energy, and that's what they did, and we got a shot."
Now, Colson and Ferrell seem to be clicking. Ferrell had 22 points in Wednesday's win along with Colson's 12 points.
"Obviously it's going to be a little different game with Matt and myself playing," Colson said, "and it's going to be another opportunity for us, and we're excited about it."
3. Notre Dame could be dealing with fatigue
Notre Dame has played two games in two nights; Thursday's game will be its third in three nights. Fatigue appeared to play a factor in Notre Dame's slow start against Virginia Tech, though the Fighting Irish eventually found the energy. But three games in three nights will be tough.
Four of Notre Dame's starters played 36 minutes or more Wednesday. Two players — Rex Pflueger and T.J. Gibbs — played the entire game.
Duke is well-rested. It hasn't played a game in five days.
Getting out in transition, pushing the ball and making Notre Dame's players chase Blue Devils could be to Duke's advantage.
4. Notre Dame struggles with height
Early in Notre Dame's game against Virginia Tech, it struggled with the Hokies' length. Virginia Tech sophomore forward Terry Blackshear, who is 6-10, 260 pounds and athletic, altered shots in the paint and helped make it tough for Colson.
The Fighting Irish don't have much height. Martinas Geben, a 6-10, 252-pound forward, did not play much down the stretch and only 16 minutes in the whole game. Colson is 6-6. Austin Torres, a graduate student who played 13 minutes, is 6-7.
Duke does not lack for height and likes to pound the ball inside. Of its main rotation, four players are 6-10 or taller.
5. Duke must make it tough for Colson like Virginia Tech did
The Fighting Irish seem to go as Colson goes. Colson had just two points after the first half. As a result, the Hokies led at halftime 34-21.
It wasn't until Colson hit a few shots that Notre Dame got going. He had 10 points in the second half. It seemed to spark his teammates, who also were struggling. Ferrell had 17 points in the second half. If Duke can make it tough for Colson for an entire game, it'll be tough for Notre Dame as a team.
Since Duke has used zone defense as its primary defense, points have been hard to come by for opponents. Over the last seven games, Duke is giving up only 58 points per game. Among major conference teams, that is the second-fewest points per game allowed since Feb. 10. Only Virginia has given up fewer points (54.8 ppg) in that stretch.
Alexander, 919-829-4822; Twitter: @jonmalexander