There are collapses and then there are collapses, the likes of which seem almost impossible and improbable and altogether so unlikely or unimaginable.
Yet it all seems possible for this Notre Dame team. For this season. For the same reasons.
Three games after letting a 17-point lead in a league game slip away on the road, the Irish went three points better, and then a whole lot worse. Up 20 with 16:49 remaining in the Carrier Dome, Notre Dame allowed Syracuse to get going and get flowing on a monster scoring run.
There was no getting any of it back. Not the lead. Not the momentum. Nothing. What was headed for a really nice Irish win disintegrated into a 75-67 loss. Sixteen minutes and change away from climbing back to .500 in the Atlantic Coast Conference for the first time since last March, Notre Dame slips to 9-11, 6-8.
The blame goes everywhere with this one. On the Irish guards, who couldn’t handle pressure. On the Irish leadership, which didn’t really lead. On the five guys on the floor in the second half, who played like they’d met each other at halftime.
Last time the Irish jumped to an early big lead on the road — at Georgia Tech — pressure defense and ball handling were issues. Notre Dame struggled that night in midtown Atlanta and struggled again in Central New York. A 17-point lead was shaved nearly in half — to nine — in less than three minutes. Syracuse turned up the intensity, the pressure defense and everything else. Like was the case at Georgia Tech, Notre Dame struggled to match it and realize it was still a game with a long time left.
“There’s a little bit of a mental hurdle,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “There’s a little bit of, ‘Here we go again.’”
When the Irish needed direction from someone, they got none of it. Instead, it was more of the shaky same.
“It’s on their (butts) to figure out how to bounce back and play in Louisville,” Brey said of side-stepping the here-we-go-again mindset. “We’ll try get our guys in better spots against the press. Either you’re tough enough to attack it or you’re not. Either you’re going to get over the hump, or you’re not.”
Brey also shared in the blame.
“I’m not pointing fingers,” he said. “I always accept responsibility.”
A 29-5 Orange run where the Irish couldn’t handle pressure, couldn’t make a shot, couldn’t get anything under control cemented this one. The final stats — who scored, who rebounded, who assisted — after this one it’s more like who cares? The Irish were so disorganized after looking so dominant in the first half. Pick up the pieces to this one? Good luck. There might not be any left.
That Syracuse ran off buckets in bunches — nine unanswered, 15 of 18 — became a big red flag. The Orange just kept coming. So did the Irish turnovers. They had eight in the second half. And missed shots. And poor play. The Orange run went to 18-2 following a Quincy Guerrier 3 to bring the home team back within one, 60-59, with 8:29 remaining. It went to 21-2 on a Buddy Boeheim 3, which gave Syracuse its first lead, 62-60, with 7:38 left.
The Orange went from down 20 to up eight thanks to a 36-8 burst.
“It’s a make or miss game,” said Irish guard Trey Wertz. “They made more shots in that stretch. They put us on our heels for the rest of the game. They started making shots. I don’t know how else to put it.”
Notre Dame looked and played shell-shocked. That’s the thing about momentum — it’s easy to find when you’re in a flow, but when it goes, it’s really hard to rediscover. Wertz finally stopped the big run with a 3-pointer to bring the Irish back within one (64-63), with 4:46 left.
“Fullcourt pressure changed the whole complexion and our turnovers hurt us,” Brey said. “Disappointing.”
Beyond disappointing. A win Saturday would’ve done wonders for this team heading into the final two weeks of the regular season. Now, it’s back to a cornered mentality. There’s no choice but to keep fighting. Press? Louisville’s going to press the Irish from the minute their bus pulls into KFC Yum! Center. Go play.
At one point in the first half, Notre Dame connected on nine of 10 shots. A Wertz 3 pushed their lead into double digits for the first time not even nine minutes in. There’s flow and then there’s the flow the Irish had found. Notre Dame led by as many as 19 in the first half following a corner 3 from Prentiss Hubb. Anything the Irish wanted offensively, they seemingly had. They dissected the 2/3 zone with surgical precision. They seldom were in a hurry, never panicked and just played.
The opening 20 minutes took barely 40 to play. It was wide-open, back-and-forth basketball. Not a lot of whistles. A lot of made shots. And if you’re an Irish fan, a lot to like. Too bad it didn’t last.
NOTRE DAME (67): Durham 5-8 0-0 10, Laszewski 4-7 1-2 11, Goodwin 6-14 0-0 13, Hubb 3-12 0-0 8, Wertz 6-10 0-0 17, Djogo 0-1 2-2 2, Ryan 2-6 0-0 6. Totals 26-58 3-4 67.
SYRACUSE (75): Dolezaj 6-10 6-6 18, Griffin 2-6 0-0 5, Guerrier 3-11 2-2 9, Boeheim 10-19 3-3 29, Girard 2-7 0-0 5, Richmond 3-6 0-0 6, Braswell 1-4 0-0 3, Ajak 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-63 11-11 75.
Halftime_Notre Dame 46-32. 3-Point Goals_Notre Dame 12-31 (Wertz 5-9, Ryan 2-3, Laszewski 2-4, Hubb 2-10, Goodwin 1-5), Syracuse 10-23 (Boeheim 6-10, Guerrier 1-2, Girard 1-3, Braswell 1-4, Griffin 1-4). Rebounds_Notre Dame 31 (Laszewski 12), Syracuse 33 (Guerrier 14). Assists_Notre Dame 22 (Hubb 10), Syracuse 12 (Dolezaj 4). Total Fouls_Notre Dame 13, Syracuse 11.