Tucked in the midst of games against ACC frontrunners North Carolina, Florida State, Virginia and Duke at the end of January/early February was a trip to McCamish Pavilion on the campus of Georgia Tech.
Notre Dame, the early-season darling of the ACC en route to five straight victories out of the chute, needed a victory against the upstart Yellow Jackets to offset the onslaught of top 25 opponents.
Not only did the trip to Atlanta on Jan. 28 turn into a 62-60 loss, it was a bitter defeat. What looked like a sure overtime game at worst, whether the Irish missed a last-second shot or not, became a Georgia Tech fast break and buzzer-beating heartbreak.
Sunday, at Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion, the Irish (21-7, 10-5) have a chance to even the score against the Yellow Jackets as they continue their pursuit of a double-bye in the ACC tournament.
Notre Dame got its revenge for a Florida State road loss on Jan. 18 with an impressive 12-point home victory three-and-a-half weeks later. The motivation is the same against Georgia Tech.
“For our guys, they will want to play well because that one hurt,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “We had the ball with a chance. Maybe we didn’t deserve that, but we were there, and then (Georgia Tech) made a great play. We weren’t as alert as we needed to be defensively.”
Matt Farrell’s off-balance shot attempt left too much time on the clock. Tadric Jackson, who scored a career-high 25 points off the bench, grabbed the rebound and kicked it ahead to Josh Okogie, who raced past T.J. Gibbs for the game-winning bucket.
“That’s the most down and upset I ‘ve seen them,” Brey said. “They were mad at how they played and how it finished.”
The loss to Georgia Tech was the second of what would turn into a four-game Irish losing streak at a time when Notre Dame’s characteristic high-scoring offense hit a lull.
Big man Martin Geben was struggling, prompting Brey to steer away from two bigs on the court and even a four-around-one look to take full advantage of Notre Dame’s greatest asset – its spread-the-floor, five-out look that led to the four-game winning streak they’re currently in.
Georgia Tech presents a multitude of issues defensively, including a rare triangle-and-two look that limited the Irish to just 60 points four days after tallying a mere 54 against Virginia. Notre Dame shot just 40.4 percent against the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta.
Since the four-game tailspin, the new-look Irish have scored 88 points against Wake Forest, 84 versus Florida State, 84 in a come-from-behind victory at Boston College, and 81 at N.C. State last Saturday.
“We like to think that teams have to adjust to us going forward,” Farrell said. “We’re going to do things a little different this time. We might have trouble rebounding, but you might have trouble guarding us. When we do rebound, that’s when we can be really special.”
Georgia Tech’s triangle-and-two defense remains a puzzle the Irish must solve Sunday night.
“We haven’t seen it this year except from them,” said senior V.J. Beachem. “They threw out some junk defenses, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they did the same thing Sunday.”
There’s a solution to every issue on the basketball court, and Brey has some adjustments of his own. Yet Ben Lammers, who blocked three shots against the Irish and altered several more, still looms.
“We’re playing more five-out now than we did last time, so you’re going to have to chase us a little more,” Brey said. “That gives us better driving areas, although Lammers is an amazing rim protector, the best in the league. If he doesn’t block it, he’s got you thinking about it.
“We’ve got to spread them out more and make them chase us. We also have to get some stops so we can get out and run.”
Evening the score is motivation enough for double-double machine Bonzie Colson.
“It’s a payback game,” said Colson, who had 13 points and 13 rebounds against Georgia Tech four weeks ago. “They can score and they have a different offensive tempo than what we’ve seen.
“We still have to defend, but we’ve changed the way we were playing since then.”
The scenario against Georgia Tech is familiar...and enticing.
“It’s the same situation (as Florida State) where we’ve been looking forward to this game after what happened down there,” Farrell said. “We felt that one slipped away.”