January 09, 2015

(AP) - Virginia's best start since the 1980-81 season hasn't always been a work of art offensively. Fortunately for the No. 3 Cavaliers, they have always been able to rely on their defense.

Notre Dame believes it has something to prove even though the 13th-ranked Fighting Irish are off to their best start in four decades - especially against visiting Virginia on Saturday night.

The Cavaliers (14-0, 2-0 ACC) manhandled Notre Dame (15-1, 3-0) twice last season, winning 68-53 in South Bend and 70-49 in Charlottesville.

''They owned us. We had no answers for Virginia,'' coach Mike Brey said. ''It was like a JV versus a varsity. They put it on us twice. It was the one team in the league we weren't competitive with.''

The Cavaliers put their defensive prowess on display again Wednesday night in a 61-51 victory over North Carolina State. The Wolfpack came out red hot from 3-point range, hitting four in the first 6:13 and jumping to a 16-8 lead. Just as quickly, the Cavaliers adjusted, holding them scoreless for the next 6:19.

In the second half, after the Wolfpack used a 17-7 run that took nearly 10 minutes spanning the halves to take a one-point lead, the Cavaliers put the clamps on again. North Carolina State didn't score for a stretch of 5:58, during which Virginia ripped off 10 straight points to take command of the game.

N.C. State's 51 points was right at Virginia's defensive average, 50.8, which is second nationally behind top-ranked Kentucky (50.6).

When Davidson visited Dec. 30, the Cavaliers won 83-72 but saw their nation-best streak of 17 games allowing 70 points or less come to an end. In their conference opener four nights later at Miami, the Hurricanes did even better but still came up short, 89-80, in two overtimes.

Just winning wasn't good enough for coach Tony Bennett, and he let his team know in practice.

''We knew that two games in a row we didn't execute defensively to our standard, and coach wanted to ramp it up this week,'' said junior guard Justin Anderson, the team's top scorer at 15.1 points per game.

''He got after us leading up to this game. I think we came out start to finish on edge.''

Notre Dame has won its last five games against top 10 teams at Purcell Pavilion, including a shocking 79-77 upset of No. 7 Duke in one of the few bright spots last January as the Irish finished 15-17 - their only losing campaign in 14 seasons under Brey.

Senior Pat Connaughton said a win against Virginia would be the biggest yet for the Irish, who already beat then-No. 19 Michigan State 79-78 in overtime Dec. 3 and won 71-70 at No. 18 North Carolina on Monday.

''They're one of the last three undefeated teams and they're one of the teams that kept it a little uncompetitive against us last year,'' he said. ''We want to show that we're a different team than we were last year.''

The biggest difference for the Irish this season has been the return of Jerian Grant, who was dismissed from school last December for an undisclosed academic violation. Grant is tied for second in the ACC with 17.3 points per game, and his 6.3 assists lead the conference.

Notre Dame leads the nation in shooting, making 54.8 percent of its shots, and is third in scoring at 85.0 points a game. The Cavaliers are second in the nation in shooting defense, allowing opponents to make only 33.7 percent of their field goals.

''It's a great matchup. There's a great buzz about it,'' Brey said. ''I'm really thrilled we're in a position to make this a big game. We've come such a long way from last year.''

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