WASHINGTON – The euphoria of coming back from a 16-point second-half deficit against Duke gave way to the fact that Notre Dame has not been playing quality, consistent basketball since the second week of February when the Irish defeated North Carolina, Clemson and Louisville in consecutive games.
The Tar Heel team that showed up at Purcell Pavilion on Feb. 6 was replaced by a dynamic, hot-shooting, motivated North Carolina squad that scored the final 18 points of the first half and then the first six of the second half to complete a 24-0 run in its 78-47 victory over Notre Dame in semifinal action of the ACC tournament Friday night.
Notre Dame will not repeat as ACC champs. They’re fortunate they didn’t lose by 40.
“That’s the best I’ve seen them defensively this year,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey of the Tar Heels, who forced Notre Dame into 17 turnovers one night after the Irish coughed it up 18 times against Duke.
“They weren’t guarding like that in South Bend. Give them credit. They smothered us and shut us down.”
Considering the two of three the Irish lost on the road in the Georgia Tech-Wake Forest-Florida State stretch, followed by a Miami whitewashing at Purcell Pavilion, the brief interlude to get their mojo back against N.C. State to end the regular season, and then Duke’s 16-point lead with 11 minutes remaining, it’s clear the Irish are struggling to play the kind of basketball that has earmarked the program under Brey in recent years.
One of the most efficient and protective offenses in the country has turned the ball over 35 times in two games, albeit against two of the bedrocks of college basketball.
Notre Dame’s previous high for turnovers this season had been 14. The Irish had single-digit turnovers in 14 games this year, including six at Duke in January and a season-low two against North Carolina in February.
“The one thing I have a concern about is both games (in the ACC tournament), it was a one or two possession game with four minutes to go in the first half and we finished the half turning the ball over,” Brey said. “(Thursday), we were lucky to dig ourselves out. There’s no way we were digging out of this hole.
“Eighteen turnovers, 17 turnovers…That’s hard for me to swallow with how this program has been built.”
The program has been built on disciplined play and smart basketball, minimizing mistakes, a picturesque offensive flow and, by and large, overachievement.
Instead, the Irish played like the Notre Dame program that entered the Big East 20 seasons ago under John MacLeod, lost each of its first four conference tournament games and had just four wins after 13 years in the league.
The breakthrough began in 2008-09 when the Irish embarked on a string of at least one conference tournament victory five straight seasons and now seven of the last eight.
But now the Irish enter the NCAA tournament with fundamental concerns, much like they were entering the N.C. State game when offensive flow had become an issue.
Yes, it was Notre Dame’s man-to-man defense that turned the tide against Duke. But North Carolina’s demolition was thorough and sobering enough to put the Irish in a less-than-ideal place heading into Selection Sunday, where the best the Irish can hope for is a No. 6 seed, but more likely a No. 7.
The Irish have less than a week to cleanse the palate, clear the mechanism, wipe clean the slate, whatever you want to call the sour taste that’s taken up residence for the better part of the last month.
“Here it is the NCAA tournament and there are things we need to work on and try to be better at before we play again,” Brey said.
Brey didn’t wait for the post mortem to begin the process.
“I was doing it in the timeouts in the second half,” Brey said. “I said, ‘Look, let’s finish how we need to play and we’ll talk about what we need to do next week.’ We won’t dwell on this much other than end-of-half (situations) and being good with the ball.”
Offering encouragement is the ACC tournament performance of V.J. Beachem and the demeanor of Zach Auguste when things went south Friday night.
Not only did Beachem want the ball with the game on the line against Duke – delivering three clutch three-pointers down the stretch to finish with 19 points – but he picked up where he left off the next night, tossing in an early three-pointer, driving to the paint and finishing with another 15 points against the Tar Heels.
“Last March was a nightmare for him,” said Brey, recalling Beachem’s 14 points in seven games.
“I’m thrilled where he’s at. I’m excited about the momentum he’s playing with. We certainly need him. He’s driving the ball and he’s making some plays.”
Coming off a 19-point, 22-rebound performance against Duke, Auguste was swallowed up by North Carolina’s length. He finished with just six points on 3-of-6 shooting. But he still battled for 10 rebounds in 27 minutes of action, and rather than show the frustration that has dogged him a vast majority of his career, he kept his composure and just kept competing.
“I thought he was great in trying to steady us,” said Brey of Auguste. “Everybody else was frustrated but he was a calming influence, especially with Bonzie (Colson).
“(Colson) got frustrated and in foul trouble. He played a little young and Z was great the whole time. I’ve been thrilled with his leadership. He’s a man now.”
But just as the Irish backcourt struggled in the late-season loss to Miami when Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia combined to shoot 3-of-22, their shooting woes persisted. Jackson was 1-of-10 against the Tar Heels while Vasturia misfired on all six of his field-goal attempts.
Come Sunday, Brey will have the North Carolina woes in his rearview mirror.
“What are we a 6-seed? A 7-seed? A 6 ½?” Brey said. “Doesn’t (the win over Duke) get you to a six? We have five top 30 RPI wins and three away from our building. We have a very good resume.”
For the sixth time in seven years, the Irish are guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament field.
“You know what’s great to know, especially when you’re down 30 in the second half?” Brey smiled. “I’m showing up Selection Sunday.”
The challenge is to get his team to show up with him at a designated NCAA tournament regional venue following a month of mostly inconsistent play.