Jan. 31, 2017
By John Heisler
Nobody knows better than Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey how cold and cruel life sometimes can be when it comes to Atlantic Coast Conference basketball fortunes.
He learned that through eight seasons as a Duke assistant—though those years mostly went the Blue Devils’ way (three league crowns, two of those translating to NCAA titles). And his young Irish charges are learning it firsthand now—with those same 21st-rated Blue Devils providing the latest lesson Monday night in an 84-74 victory.
Brey knows full well that one moment you’re drinking the wine, as the old saying goes—as his now 20th-ranked Irish seemingly could after a 5-0 ACC start left them, for a time, as the lone remaining unbeaten in the conference.
Then the next time you’re stomping the grapes—with Brey’s crew now trying to find its way out of a mini-slump that has seen the Irish drop four of their last five, including consecutive home defeats at the hands of ranked Virginia and Duke clubs.
“I love our team,” said Brey after the game to his squad. “We’ve got a heck of a group.
“This is league play in the best league. This league just keeps throwing big punches at everybody. You take the punches like men and move on. We’ve got a lot of basketball to play.”
It’s 12th-ranked North Carolina next in Chapel Hill and then a week later it’s 15th-rated Florida State.
And on and on.
While offense seldom has been a problem at Notre Dame during the Brey era, the Irish came into the assignment against Duke searching for some answers in that category after managing only 54 points against Virginia and 60 versus Georgia Tech Saturday (the Irish average 79.0 overall, 72.3 in league games).
Duke, though it regained some of its standing with a huge come-from-behind road win Saturday at Wake Forest, had lost three of its last four before that. The Irish had won five of their last six contests against Duke—and who knows how that played into the setting?
Purcell Pavilion was jammed, including former Irish players John Shumate and John Paxson (both scouting for their NBA teams) along with Jerian Grant, Scott Paddock and Pat Garrity.
But after V.J. Beachem’s dunk gave the Irish a 19-16 lead Monday at Purcell Pavilion, it all went south for the home team. Notre Dame did not account for a field goal in the final 8:41, Duke grabbed a 12-point lead at the break and the Irish finished with only seven first-half field goals while shooting at a .269 clip (seven for 26). Notre Dame’s final 10 shots of the half were off the mark, as Duke finished on a 21-6 run.
Before several recent home games, Brey had wiped the offensive pregame keys off the board, sending a message that defense would be the hallmark for victory. On this night, he did the reverse, suggesting that this was all about the Irish offense getting back into its normal flow.
It simply did not happen that way in those first 20 minutes. The locker room at halftime probably comprised about a 25-way tie for most frustrated and disappointed individual, considering players, coaches and staff.
Yet the Irish can take some solace in how quickly they muscled their way back into the contest. Beachem, who finished with 20 points, hit a jumper and then a three, and Bonzie Colson’s free-throw-line bucket cut the Duke lead to five a little more than two minutes in and forced a Blue Devil timeout.
The patented Irish offensive firepower returned—in fact, at one point Notre Dame had hit 12 of its 15 second-half shots yet still trailed 63-54. It took 20 minutes to compile those seven first-half field goals—it required only 5:36 to nail that many after the break.
The Irish ran off 12 straight points midway through the second period, pulled within 63-62 and had the ball (after three straight Duke turnovers), only to see a contested Steve Vasturia lay-in roll off.
Notre Dame, normally a model of efficiency at the free-throw line and the top team in the country in that category coming into the game, missed nine from the stripe Monday. Meanwhile, Duke put on a clinic in connecting on 23 of 24.
The Irish went small most of the night, with starting center Martinas Geben playing only seven minutes. That had something to do with Duke’s 38-26 final edge on the boards.
Vasturia connected on only one of nine shots (after going one for seven at Georgia Tech)—and a rebound from him is a must for the Irish to get where they want to go.
A 49-point second half simply wasn’t enough for the Irish against a Duke team that always seemed to come up with a big shot at the right time.
“It was a great effort coming back,” Brey told his guys. “We had our chances. We gave ourselves a chance.
“We’ve got to do it together and have each other’s back. Give them credit. They made big shots when they had to and they defended us pretty well.”
Sometime between now and Saturday Brey will remind his guys that the last time they played at the Dean Smith Center (two years ago) they walked away with a victory.
This next time, on Saturday, they’ll try to be the one delivering that cold, cruel ACC blow.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been writing about Notre Dame athletics since 1978.