SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Kerry Blackshear Jr. is so pivotal to Virginia Tech's success that coach Buzz Williams begins sweating foul trouble as soon as his junior star commits his first.
"He's just become so integral to literally everything we do on both ends," Williams said.
Blackshear had 22 points and 14 rebounds in the No. 20 Hokies' 67-59 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday.
"I tried to protect him for two or three minutes when he picked up his first foul," Williams said about momentarily pulling Blackshear just 6:42 into the game, "and then when I took him out in the second half, he's just exhausted, because he's so important to what we're doing."
Blackshear still logged 33 minutes, and he continued to build a case as a college basketball Mr. February.
In seven games this month, the 6-foot-10 forward is averaging 20.1 points and 9.3 rebounds. He's shooting 60 percent from the field, has hit 9 of 17 on 3-pointers and is at 83 percent from the line.
On Saturday, he helped Virginia Tech (21-6, 10-5 Atlantic Coast Conference), lead from the first basket onward, including a 14-4 advantage after eight minutes.
The Fighting Irish (13-14, 3-11) missed nine of their first 10 shots and committed four turnovers over the opening nine minutes, forcing them to play catch-up all day.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker scored 12 points and went 7 of 7 at the line for the Hokies.
Ty Outlaw added nine points, Ahmed Hill had eight, and freshman guard Isaiah Wilkins delivered a boost off the bench with eight points and seven rebounds in just 15 minutes.
T.J. Gibbs paced Notre Dame with 18 points but hit just 5 of 17 from the field with three 3-pointers.
John Mooney and Nate Laszewski each added 12 points, with Mooney grabbing 10 rebounds.
The Irish got as close as six points on three occasions in the second half, but suffered their third straight loss and ninth in their last 11 outings.
"The second shots hurt us," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said after Tech swarmed to as many offensive rebounds (18) as the Irish had defensive rebounds.
"They just got too many men," Brey said about the Hokies. "Too old, too tough, too mentally tough, and we are not that right now."
Overall, Tech outrebounded the Irish 49-27.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies improved to 4-3 without senior point guard Justin Robinson. The ACC's active leader in career assists is out indefinitely with a left foot injury he suffered Jan. 30 at Miami. Now Tech — which is 17-3 with Robinson encounters two ranked opponents in its final three regular-season games.
Notre Dame: The Irish fell below .500 for just the second time at any point in Brey's 19 seasons. The only other occasion occurred in 2013-14, when they slipped to 15-16 on their way to a 15-17 finish, their only non-winning season under him.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies host No. 1 Duke on Tuesday night. They are 0-4 against top-16 teams.
Notre Dame: The Irish play the middle of three straight games against ranked opponents when they visit No. 16 Florida State on Monday.
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/tag/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25