Mike Brey isn’t one to mess with a winning formula.
It’s not that he ignores a problem spot when it comes time to practice it. But he’s also not one to verbally dwell on a team shortcoming, such as rebounding, a string of missed free throws or – in this particular instance – deficits that turn into victories.
“That’s the game plan,” joked Brey of the eight times the Irish have trailed by as many as seven points – including an 18-point deficit Sunday night at North Carolina State – yet still came back to win.
“We want to be down 10 and come back and do our thing.”
Of course, that’s not completely true. There remains an easier path. But when you have a team as resilient as the No. 8 Fighting Irish (19-2, 7-1), tinkering too much with success is ill-advised.
Brey said he first got an inkling of this team’s ability to come back from deficits as early as the weekend of Nov. 22-23 when Notre Dame traveled to Uncasville, Conn., to take on Massachusetts and Providence. Since then, the Irish have made it a habit.
• Down 10 within the first 10 minutes against Massachusetts, the Irish out-scored the Minutemen by 13 the rest of the half and by 23 over the final 30 minutes of their 81-68 victory.
• Down seven with 11:21 remaining at home against Michigan State, the Irish took it into overtime and claimed a 79-78 victory.
• Down by eight less than six minutes into the Purdue game in Indianapolis, the Irish took a seven-point halftime lead and then out-scored the Boilermakers in the second half, 48-24, en route to a 94-63 victory.
• Down by 11 three minutes into the home tilt against Georgia Tech, Notre Dame claimed an 83-76 double-overtime victory over the Yellow Jackets.
• Down by 12 at Georgia Tech with 4:16 left in the first half, the Irish overcame an eight-point halftime deficit to sweep the two-game series with a 62-59 victory.
• Down by 12 to Miami with 12:06 remaining, Notre Dame out-scored the Hurricanes by 19 over the next 11:14 to claim a 75-70 victory.
• After falling behind by 18 points less than 17 minutes into the game, the Irish turned the tables on North Carolina State, out-scoring the Wolfpack, 31-12, to take the lead and eventually secure an 81-78 overtime victory.
Heck, even Hartford led Notre Dame by seven just four minutes into the late-December game that the Irish led by 15 at halftime and won, 87-60.
“The thing that makes us so dangerous is that we have guys that can get going at any time,” said Irish captain Pat Connaughton.
Yet it’s one thing to do that at home, and then go on the road and duplicate the feat. To rally at Georgia Tech, which had revenge for a double-overtime loss 11 days earlier, and at North Carolina State, a team that desperately needed a victory to avoid falling to 4-4 in conference play, is rare.
The Irish are off to a 4-0 start away from home in ACC play. It may be another couple decades before achieving that feat again.
“Maybe we play the first half just to get to the second half,” Brey said. “I don’t want to overanalyze it because I love our efficiency in the second half.
“You’d certainly like to get off to better starts. We’ve been digging out of a hole. But I don’t talk about it much because it just doesn’t fluster these guys. They seem to find a rhythm eventually on both ends of the floor.”
Notre Dame has developed a belief that at some point during the game, someone is going to step up. It could be any one of Notre Dame’s five starters – Connaughton, ACC Player of the Year candidate Jerian Grant, Demetrius Jackson Zach Auguste or Steve Vasturia – or one of two super subs that have emerged – V.J. Beachem or Bonzie Colson.
“We always have a spark, and it comes at some point in time,” Jackson said. “It’s usually in the second half.”
“We play with a lot of confidence, no matter what’s happening,” Grant added. “If shots aren’t falling or we’re not getting stops, we know eventually it’s going to come.”
The spark with 1.8 seconds remaining in regulation Sunday night at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., was Beachem, whose tip-in sent the game into overtime.
“It definitely starts with Coach Brey and (seniors Connaughton and Grant),” Beachem said. “The other night, we got off to a slow start. Offensively, we didn’t have a lot of movement, and defensively, we weren’t really guarding well.
“But we feel like no matter what the situation is, even if we’re down 20, we have a chance to come back and win it. We have a lot more pride than that. We’re not about to get beat by 20, no matter if it’s on the road and no matter who it’s against.”
Brey and the players point back to an off-season approach in which the players engaged in a give-and-take of “constructive criticism” that would allow them to deal with the brimming emotions that surface during the heat of battle.
“They handle it like men, and that’s something we started working on this summer,” Brey said. “Being able to confront each other and not feel like you’re stepping on each other’s toes. They’re very secure with who they are. They’re able to say tough stuff to each other and not be distracted by it.”
Halftime at PNC Arena Sunday night was one of those “tough stuff” moments.
“Guys got after each other about stuff at halftime, especially defensively because we gave up 42 points,” Brey said.
And then when crunch time rolled around, the unit tightened up its game and went after it with the knowledge that there wasn’t anything they couldn’t accomplish as a cohesive unit.
“It’s a lot of Jerian and Pat,” Brey said.” Keeping us poised and almost smirking like, ‘It’s a 40-minute game.’ One of the phrases we use is, ‘It’s a long game; don’t panic. Remember how long a game it is.’”
Forty minutes – and sometimes five or 10 more if necessary – generally has been enough time for the Irish.
“We’re a really resilient team,” said 6-foot-10 junior Zach Auguste, who faced his own adversity a couple of week ago when he was forced to sit out a game to tend to an academic situation.
“We don’t put our heads down. We don’t hang our heads. We stay together and we hold each other accountable.”