Florida State, Irish to battle for first place

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Jockeying for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference continues Wednesday night as No. 15 Notre Dame travels to Florida to take on No. 10 Florida State.

The Fighting Irish (16-2, 5-0 ACC) bring a perfect conference mark into the Donald L. Tucker Center — and sole possession, at the moment, of the top spot in the ACC. But the Seminoles (16-2, 4-1) can swing the pendulum back in their favor with a win on their home floor, where Florida State is unbeaten this year with a 12-0 mark in Tallahassee.

The game will mark the fifth straight ranked opponent Florida State will have faced since beginning conference play. The Seminoles are 3-1 over that stretch with wins against No. 16 Virginia, then-No. 20 Virginia Tech and No. 18 Duke, coupled with a loss to No. 9 North Carolina this past Saturday. Florida State will close its brutal Top 25 gauntlet to begin ACC play Saturday when it hosts No. 12 Louisville.

The 96-83 defeat to the Tar Heels ended a stretch of 12 wins in a row by Florida State and halted potential history: The Seminoles, who are led by guard Dwayne Bacon’s 17.8 points per game, had tied their best start ever at 16-1 (with the 1988-99 team) going into the North Carolina game, and they needed just one win to set a school record.

Instead, Florida State forward Jarquez Smith called the loss “a reality check,” in an interview with the school’s official website, Seminoles.com.

Smith added: “Things aren’t always going to go our way. We’re not always going to play the best game possible. We just have to learn to bounce back from tough games like that.”

Another tough game awaits in Notre Dame, winners of seven straight with its only losses coming against No. 1 Villanova and No. 21 Purdue. The Irish have also beaten Louisville, Duke and Virginia Tech en route to first place in the ACC — a spot it shared with Florida State before the Seminoles’ loss Saturday to North Carolina.

What is particularly impressive has been Notre Dame’s ability to close games. The Irish have outscored their opponents 45-11 in the final two-plus minutes of their first five ACC games, including a 10-1 run in the victory over over Miami and a 6-1 run against Pitt that forced overtime, with Notre Dame eventually winning 78-77.

Notre Dame senior swingman V.J. Beachem leads the team in playing time at 33.2 minutes per game and has been particularly adept at producing pivotal plays in the closing minutes.

“It’s just something that all of us take pride in,” he told the South Bend Tribune. “I tell myself in the heat of the moments, try to make a play here to help your team win a game. Get a stop, a deflection. It’s something I’ve been trying to be conscious of lately.”

Coach Mike Brey depends on Beachem’s senior leadership when it matters most.

“That’s why you have him on the floor, especially at crunch time,” Brey said, according to the Tribune. “He has a knack for doing it. Even though maybe the previous 38 minutes weren’t beautiful, you kind of want him back in there to finish.”

The Irish, who are led in scoring by forward Bonzie Colson’s 15.8 points and 10.9 rebounds a game, earlier posted the best overall start of Brey’s tenure (9-0), and now have the best ACC start (5-0) in school history.

But the Irish haven’t fared well in Tallahassee. Florida State leads the all-time series against Notre Dame 3-1, with two of those wins coming at home.