Men’s basketball falls in ACC Tournament

Freshman guard Naithan George looks for the assist against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the ACC Tournament. // Photo courtesy of GTAA

Entering the ACC tournament as the 13th seed, the Jackets looked to end head coach Damon Stoudamire’s first season at the helm on a high note with a deep run. 

Their first game came against the 12th-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a team that the Jackets have already played twice this season. Both matchups were incredibly close games, with the Jackets losing in overtime at home in the first matchup and by three points in South Bend in the second matchup. 

Notre Dame is a lackluster team, entering the tournament with a 13-19 record, which is one fewer win than the Jackets. Additionally, they score the second-fewest points per game in the ACC, only scoring 64 points per game on the season compared to the Jackets’ 70.7 points per game. However, the Fighting Irish boast the third-best regular season defense in the ACC, allowing the third-fewest points per game at 67.6 points. It is a sizable difference from the Jackets’ 12th-ranked 75.2 points allowed per game. Still, this was the final chance for the Jackets to avoid going 0-3 on the year against an offensively challenged Fighting Irish squad.

The first half opened with two layups from the Jackets on assists from Canadian freshman Naithan George that tied the score at four apiece. However, the Fighting Irish answered with a 13 -1 run that exposed the Jackets’ perimeter defense as all of their points came from jumpers, three of which came from Notre Dame’s freshman guard and leading scorer Markus Burton.

Jackets’ junior guard Miles Kelly stopped Notre Dame’s run with a strong finish at the rim that resulted in an and-one play, bringing the score to 8-17. A three-point shot from George was followed by a pair of layups from the Fighting Irish senior forward Matt Zona. Burton and George then exchanged two three-point shots each to bring the score to 21–29 with eight minutes to go in the half. 

The next three minutes saw two layups from freshman Baye Ndongo, both of which were assisted by George, who leads the Jackets with 4.7 assists per game. Two Notre Dame jumpers were followed by a Burton steal that resulted in a possession ending in free throw attempts by Fighting Irish sophomore forward Tae Davis. The remaining few minutes in the half consisted mainly of free throw attempts from both teams, with Ndongo going 4-4 from the line and Kelly making two of his own. The Jackets took a 35-48 deficit into the locker room as they prepared for the second half. 

Coming out of the half, George and Notre Dame’s freshman guard Braeden Shrewsberry exchanged three-pointers. The Fighting Irish extended their lead to 15 points before a jumper by junior guard Kowacie Reeves and Ndongo free throw cut the lead to 12. With 12:59 remaining in the half, Notre Dame was up 65-48 with a sizable 17-point lead. 

The Jackets then began to heat up with a three from senior guard Kyle Sturdivant which kicked off an impressive 21-6 Jackets run. This run included an impressive four-point play from George, as well as six Jackets free throws. Ndongo also poured in seven points and an assist during the run. Suddenly, the game was 69-71 with 7:54 remaining in the game as the Irish clung to a one-score lead. George scored 14 straight points in crunch time, capping his hot streak with a jumper with 4:24 remaining in the game to take a 78-77 lead.

The game then turned into a back-and-forth defensive battle, with the only scoring being two Notre Dame free throws in the next two minutes. Ndongo regained the lead with a layup with 2:24 remaining in the second half. Unfortunately, those would be the final points scored by the Jackets in the game, as Burton regained the lead with a fast break layup with 1:16 to go in the matchup. 

After an incredible game where he had 24 points and seven assists, George committing two turnovers that gave the ball back to the Irish. Notre Dame promptly iced the game on free throws to seal the 84-80 loss.

In addition to George, freshman sensation Ndongo also posted an impressive 22 points and seven rebounds. The only other Jacket with double-digit points was Sturdivant, who came off the bench. In contrast, the Fighting Irish had four players in double figures, headlined by Shrewsberry, who had 23 points and Burton, who had 21 points and eight assists.

After the game, Stoudamire remarked that he has “learned a lot this year.” He said, “now I can construct my roster accordingly. It’s time to try to go reconstruct the team and look at players.” 

Currently, the Jackets have the 13th-ranked 2024 recruiting class in the country, highlighted by four-star prospects  small forward Darrion Sutton and combo guard Jaeden Mustaf. 

Tech fans should be excited to see what Stoudamire can do next season with a lineup and rotationprecisely shaped to build upon this year and fit his system. Fans should expect a more consistent team in year two.