After winning three out of four in a stretch that included North Carolina and Louisville, a forward-thinking Mike Brey went from small picture to big picture moments after knocking off the Cardinals.
“Why not talk about a regular-season championship?” said Brey when a third victory in a row lifted the Irish to a 9-4 ACC mark. “Last year’s team chased a regular-season championship until about the last week or so. Why not chase that?”
The chase took a detour Sunday night at McCamish Pavilion on the campus of Georgia Tech in Atlanta as Marcus Georges-Hunt’s basket with one second remaining lifted the Yellow Jackets to a 63-62 victory over the Irish.
With four games remaining, North Carolina is in first place with an 11-3 conference mark, followed by Miami (11-4), Louisville (10-4), and Virginia (10-5), which fell to the Hurricanes Monday night.
Notre Dame is tied for fifth with Duke at 9-5, although the Irish hold the tiebreaker advantage against the Blue Devils, as they do over North Carolina and Louisville, but not Virginia or Miami.
“There’s still a chance of that,” said Brey of the ACC regular-season title.
But Brey quickly changed his focus to a more modest and, quite frankly, more important goal since the ACC only recognizes the conference tournament champion as the true champion.
“For me, the more I’ve looked at it, what’s the double-bye situation look like and tiebreakers?” Brey said. “We’ve got some tiebreakers that help us. Playing on Thursday (in the ACC tournament) would be awesome, but weirder things have happened.”
The Irish will be better served if they focus on the nuances that cost them the game against Georgia Tech, namely, their offensive efficiency down the stretch.
It’s usually defense that does Notre Dame in, and one could argue that remained the case at Georgia Tech with George-Hunt’s game-winner. But the Irish held the Yellow Jackets to 63 points.
It was a turnover, a shot-clock violation, and then a held ball with possession to Georgia Tech over the final three minutes that led to the home team’s 9-2 closing run.
“We just have such a belief that we’re going to finish it,” Brey said. “It’s tough because we were in a position to win it. We were down, we came back and we had control.”
As is often the case in missed opportunities, there were regrets.
Brey questioned the use of another ball screen, which Georgia Tech had defended well all night. For junior V.J. Beachem, his moment of regret came on the defensive end of the court when two fouls on three-point attempts resulted in four critical free throws.
“The two fouls on threes – whether I thought they were fouls or not – just being smarter contesting shots and staying down on the floor,” Beachem said.
Junior Steve Vasturia’s focus was more on the first half when the Irish fell behind by nine and trailed by seven at halftime.
“In general, getting off to a better start,” Vasturia said. “In the first half, we weren’t playing our best and they jumped on us. We struggled on the (defensive) glass, but then we got better in the second half.”
Brey is accustomed to better offensive efficiency. Notre Dame remains No. 1 in the college basketball rating for offensive efficiency per 100 possessions (124.3 points).
“Our offense needed to be a little better,” Brey said. “For us to win games in this league, we’ve scored more than that. Down the stretch, our offense was not as good.
“Give Georgia Tech credit. They were really good, and they guarded the ball screen well the last three, four minutes.”
If the regular-season championship shakes out over the final four games of the season, so be it. But the Irish need to focus on the components that will comprise a victory at Wake Forest Wednesday night.
“I sure hope we can keep that going,” said Brey when reminded that the Irish have not lost two games in a row since the 2013-14 season. “That’s been a nice trait the last two seasons. We’ve been great in that mode and we’re in that mode again against a team that’s better than their record.
“It’s become a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy in that (our players have) seen our track record doing it, so they figure that’s what we do.”
Wake Forest ended an 11-game losing streak Sunday without suspended top scorer/rebounder Devin Thomas. From there, the Irish travel to Tallahassee to take on Florida State over the weekend.
“We have to flush it quick and bounce back,” Beachem said.
“We’ve been in this position before, going on the road, having to bounce back, and these next two games are a great opportunity for us. We just want to leave the week with two wins.”