SOUTH BEND – This time last week, at 6-2 in the ACC, the Notre Dame basketball team was on a roll and playing with house money.
Today, at 6-4 following Big Monday’s 84-74 Big Buster against Duke, if the Irish would be prone to panic, now would be the time.
At one point college basketball’s best story, Notre Dame is teetering on a free-fall into the oblivion of league mediocrity.
Big Monday should have been special. Not too long ago, Duke was down. Wasn’t it just late last week when the players were banned from their locker room and not allowed to wear school apparel because they misrepresented their program by losing to North Carolina State?
The Blue Devils were ripe to be kicked by a bully. Turned out, the Irish were too nice.
They missed nine free throws and lost by 10.
They were outrebounded, 38-26.
They shot 27 percent from the field (7 of 26) in a miserable first-half showing.
Senior Steve Vasturia shot 1 of 9 from the field (0 of 5 from 3-point) and scored just seven points.
Notre Dame held Duke scoreless for four minutes in the second half. The Blue Devil lead went from 13 to one – after a Bonzie Colson layup with 6:24 to play – but the Irish never completely scaled the mountain.
There were all sorts of reasons why the Irish should feel that a big fish got away in front of a packed house.
And it was a lively bunch that gave their heroes wearing white all the support they should have needed.
Throughout the entire game, the Notre Dame student section loudly booed every time Duke bad boy Grayson Allen touched the ball. The junior guard, whose reputation for tripping opponents follows him wherever he goes, drew plenty of attention. Maybe that’s why he got a police escort while exiting the floor separate from his team when the game was over.
Watching Allen to see what he was going to do next was like watching a NASCAR race to see when the next crash was going to happen. Problem was, not many noticed when, in the second half, Allen grabbed the arm of Irish freshman T.J. Gibbs, yanked him to the floor and stomped on his foot.
Even Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, the self-proclaimed “loosest coach in America,” tightened up enough to be nailed with a technical in the second half.
“I thought (the official) could have ignored that,” Brey said of the quick whistle. “I don’t remember saying anything. I did gyrate a little bit and bench decorum is a big thing.
“I was wound a little tight there. I apologized to our guys, in the timeout (when it happened) and after the game. I said, ‘I shouldn’t do that. It’s my bad.’”
Nothing snapped the Irish out of their funk. They made their runs, cut the difference to a possession or two at times, but couldn’t close it out.
“I love our group,” said Brey, whose glass is still half-full. “We’re getting smacked hard, but we’re getting smacked hard together.
“I’ve coached in a tough league (Big East and ACC) for 17 years. You won five in a row right out of the gate. You’re maybe never going to win five in a row again. You coach accordingly.
“You’ve gotta be realistic about coming back and not getting (the players) in panic mode.”
And find a parachute to stop the free-fall.