SOUTH BEND – Nobody wanted to see it or admit it or even think about it when everything seemed so solid, but somewhere along this Atlantic Coast Conference ride, the No. 20 Notre Dame men’s basketball team was going to hit some turbulence.
It was going to get buckle-your-seat belt bumpy.
Even when the Irish sprinted out of the conference gate with five straight conference victories, which set a school record, darker days weren't far off. Gray clouds lurked. It seemingly was only a matter of time in a league that can grind any team up at any time.
It’s the Irish time. It's dark. Dreary. Desperate?
Notre Dame is in a serious spin right now. Lose. Rinse. Repeat. The Irish can’t win close games on the road. They can’t win at home.
Just when it seems like it can’t get any uglier, it does.
Staggered by another conference opponent, Notre Dame made a late run against No. 21 Duke, but couldn’t make the plays needed at the end. The Blue Devils then stole a page from the Irish operating manual – take a lot of free three throws and make a lot of free throws – which culminated in an 84-74 Irish loss at sold-out Purcell Pavilion.
Notre Dame is 17-6 overall, 6-4 in the ACC and 1-5 against ranked teams.
“It sucks, man,” said junior captain Bonzie Colson. “We’ve just got to stay together. That’s what it’s about. Gotta continue to believe in us and believe in what we can do. We gotta keep staying together.”
Notre Dame has lost three in a row in league play for the first time since 2013-14, a season that ended 6-12. The Irish have lost four of their last five.
“For us, this is league play,” coach Mike Brey said. “The punches of league play are going to come, and we’re getting them right now.”
What needs to happen for the Irish to punch back? Brey used a more-relaxed-than usual postgame presser after a loss to contemplate a likely starting lineup change for the first time this season heading into Saturday’s game at No. 12 North Carolina. The Irish are in too much of an offensive funk for the status quo to remain.
Power forward Martinas Geben likely is headed to the bench in favor of another perimeter player – either freshman T.J. Gibbs or sophomore Rex Pflueger. That move likely will be made in the coming days. So might the elevation of freshman power forward John Mooney from the end of the bench and into the rotation.
“He’s a bigger guy that can also stretch the floor,” Brey said.
The floor has to open with more guys who can drive it and space it. Everything's just too muddled.
The Irish went small with heavy helpings of Gibbs and Pflueger in the second half. That saw them score 49 points and shoot 56.7 percent from the field. Pflueger started the second half and finished with seven points, four rebounds and two assists. Gibbs scored 12 points with three rebounds and an assist in 19 minutes.
“We played great in the second half,” Colson said.
“We gotta consider starting small like we did in the second half where the floor is open and we’re moving and cutting a little bit,” Brey said. “We couldn’t get anything in the first half. We were stalling left and right.”
Though Notre Dame shaved what had been a 13-point deficit to one in the second half, this one got away in the first half, and the Irish never really could get it back.
Unable to move and cut and swing the ball and get good looks in the opening 20 minutes, the Irish shot 26.9 percent from the field and 20 percent from 3 while scoring only 25 points – a season low. They labored the final 3:41 without any points and the final 8:45 without a bucket following a V.J. Beachem dunk that gave the Irish a fools-gold like 19-16 lead.
“The end of the first half really hurt us,” Beachem said. “That’s what lost us the game. We didn’t have a lot of movement; we weren’t really guarding.”
That has to change – and soon – as the Irish venture deeper into league play. They haven’t been good because they haven’t scored it. They’re averaging 62.6 points in the three-game slide. Not good enough.
“We’re going to have to score some points to beat some people in this league,” Brey said. “There’s something about starting off with some buckets going in, even if the other team’s matching you.”
Still, for all the problems that Notre Dame had Monday, the lead was there for the taking. A 12-0 run, fueled by Colson’s three buckets, brought the Irish within one and under six minutes remaining.
This often has been the time that has belonged to the Irish. But not this night.
Not when senior guard Steve Vasturia saw an opening and sliced down the lane and had a shot at the rim, only to see the offering bounce away. With it went the home team’s best chance at a comeback. Less than a minute later, the deficit was back to six. Then doubled to 12.
“The first five games of the season, we made those plays,” Brey said. “We haven’t made them lately. We’re going to be back in that situation again.”
Duke put this one away at the place Notre Dame usually does – the free throw line. The Blue Devils scored the final 12 points from the foul line – going 12-for-12 – and finished 23-of-24 (for the game).
Notre Dame’s rep as the best foul shooting team in the nation coming in (81.5 percent) took a serious hit. The Irish finished 19-of-28 from the stripe, including a crippling 10-of-16 in the second. Many of those misses arrived when the game was there for the taking.
Instead, the Irish let another one get away.
“I don’t know, man," Colson said of the free throw failures. “It’s something we’ve got to take our time in and knock those in. It’s kind of frustrating when you miss those.”
Has fatigue become a factor?
“It could be,” Colson said. “But we’ve just got to stay focused and take our time in that part of the game and look them in.”
And, once again, pick up the pieces of a home league loss and move forward. Will they? Can they?
“Hopefully, we’ll be resilient enough to bounce back,” Brey said.
DUKE (17-5): Jayson Tatum 8-14 3-3 19, Amile Jefferson 3-7 0-1 6, Grayson Allen 6-13 6-6 21, Luke Kennard 5-11 5-5 16, Matt Jones 5-6 5-5 16, Harry Giles 1-2 2-2 4, Antonio Vrankovic 0-0 0-0 0, Frank Jackson 0-1 2-2 2. Totals 28-54 23-24 84.
NOTRE DAME (17-6): V.J. Beachem 7-14 4-4 20, Martinas Geben 0-0 0-0 0, Bonzie Colson 8-12 1-3 17, Steve Vasturia 1-9 5-6 7, Matt Farrell 3-9 3-4 11, Matt Ryan 0-0 0-0 0, Elijah Burns 0-0 0-0 0, Austin Torres 0-0 0-4 0, John Mooney 0-1 0-0 0, Rex Pflueger 2-4 2-3 7, T.J. Gibbs 3-7 4-4 12. Totals 24-56 19-28 74.
Halftime--Duke 37-25. 3-Point Goals--Duke 5-12 (Allen 3-7, Kennard 1-2, Jones 1-2, Tatum 0-1), Notre Dame 7-21 (Gibbs 2-2, Farrell 2-5, Beachem 2-6, Pflueger 1-2, Colson 0-1, Vasturia 0-5). Fouled Out--Kennard, Jefferson. Rebounds--Duke 37 (Tatum 14), Notre Dame 25 (Colson 9). Assists--Duke 11 (Allen, Jones 3), Notre Dame 12 (Vasturia, Farrell 4). Total Fouls--Duke 27, Notre Dame 21. Technicals--Notre Dame team.