SOUTH BEND — They knew what was coming and believed that after everything they had been through the last few years, even the last few days, they could handle what awaited in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Then Wednesday’s league opener against No. 21 Duke tipped at 9:03 p.m., and Notre Dame played basketball like it was effectively asleep at the dribble. Where was the confidence and conviction that the last few days generated? The belief that the Irish were ready for this moment, ready to show that this year would be different than the last two? The last three?
Turnovers and dubious defense and little rebounding rattled a team that doesn’t turn it over and can play good position defense and get a board or two when required. Fresh off its first-ever win at Kentucky four days prior, Notre Dame believed it knew who it could be, and was on track toward someplace it hadn’t been in league play in too many seasons. Success.
Wednesday was supposed to be another big step for the Irish. In some ways, it was.
Shoved into an early double-digit deficit in its own building, Notre Dame never recovered. Never rallied. Never got on the same page. Never really played. It was scramble mode basically for the final 34 minutes of a game the Irish never led. They couldn’t take care of the ball (12 turnovers), couldn’t guard (Duke shot 52 percent), couldn’t rebounded (-10), couldn’t do anything anywhere near good enough to win their ACC opener for the first time since 2017.
Instead of building off Saturday’s feel-good spring-like afternoon in Kentucky, Notre Dame (2-3; 0-1 ACC) labored through a miserable winter night in Northern Indiana in a 75-65 loss.
“Disappointing,” coach Mike Brey said after his Irish lost a 24th consecutive game to a ranked team. “I thought we could give it a better shot tonight.”
Really, Notre Dame had no shot. Right from the start, it was overwhelmed in almost every area. Even in losses, Brey finds something his team can build on, a take-away that offsets any aggravation. He’s likely still looking after this one.
There wasn’t a whole lot to like from this one, especially if you hoped that the Irish had finally turned the ACC corner at home. Nope. They’re still stuck on the same struggle street as last season, at least to start league play. Not enough offense. Not enough defense. Just not enough.
To say the Blue Devils (3-2; 1-0) dominated might be too kind. They overwhelmed the home team from the opening tip, which they won. It was an avalanche of energy that the Irish never matched. Everyone on that visiting section of sideline, from the guys on the bench, to the assistants, to the team mangers, seemed primed for this one. They were yelling out the Duke plays on one end, then barking out Notre Dame’s sets on the other.
The Blue Devils started this basketball game like a relief pitcher ends an inning in baseball — firing nothing but fastballs. Here comes another heater; hit it.
Notre Dame stood there with the bat on its shoulders.
What to do when the deficit hit seven, then 10, then twice 11 before intermission? The Irish looked uncertain. Remember that lightning strike of an offense that erupted for 48 points the previous first half down in the Commonwealth? That never appeared Wednesday. There was a spurt or two that showed some sign of life, but then, too much slippage on the other end.
Too many empty possessions on both ends pushed this one decidedly one-sided in favor of a program that knows well how to respond to road challenges, to ACC challenges.
“That hurts,” Brey said of his team’s stagger at the start. “First time we’ve been in that situation. Even Michigan State (where the Irish trailed by as many as 28), we got out of the gate good. It’s exhausting coming back and coming back and digging back.”
Two good guards
Two bright spots for the Irish were two junior guards — Dane Goodwin, who scored a game-high 25 points, two shy of his career high. Goodwin was one of a select few in a home uniform who seemingly wasn’t afraid to play. He was aggressive. He attacked. He competed.
“He’s playing really well,” Brey said. “He tried to carry us tonight and kind of did.”
Not enough Irish followed Goodwin’s lead. One guy who did was someone who, up until a couple hours before the game, wasn’t sure he’d play.
Wednesday’s league opener doubled as the Notre Dame debut for guard Trey Wertz. Expected to sit this season after transferring from Santa Clara, Wertz was among the many transfers awarded immediate eligibility around 5:30 p.m., Wednesday by the NCAA.
“It was definitely tough to stay mentally ready,” Wertz said. “I tried my best to go into it like I was playing and prepared like I was going to play. It was definitely hard.”
Wertz was a little rusty, even during warmups. Wertz and walk-on guard Elijah Morgan had trouble connecting on a basic guard drill the Irish do to get loose. They’re each supposed to pass a basketball back and forth and they slide from sideline to sideline. Halfway through the exercise, Wertz’s pass met Morgan’s pass, and both basketballs went flying the other direction.
Later during warmups, a Wertz jumper from the left wing wedged between the rim and the backboard for the dreaded neck ball.
First few runs up and down the floor, Wertz looked lost. That’s understandable. Once he settled down, he was good. Wertz finally got a shot to fall on a pretty hesitation dribble and drive in the second half. He finished with nine points, three rebounds and an assist in 20 minutes. He also did something that caught Brey’s eye.
“Actually, he may have been our best defensive guard,” Brey said. “You could see it — he’s going to be a big, big part of things moving forward.”
For a kid from Charlotte, N.C., who watched ACC basketball growing up and dreamed of playing ACC basketball, Wednesday was surreal. When it was over, bittersweet. Wertz played well, but had nothing but a loss to show for it.
“It was definitely fun,” he said. “It’s a little different, not having the fans there. It was definitely nice to get out there.”
Other than Wertz, a lot of the Irish storylines from ACC seasons past were the same. Notre Dame trailed by as many as 17 points. It twice got as close as five in the final 11:47. Second time, after a Prentiss Hubb 3, it couldn’t get much going on either end as Duke ran off nine unanswered to put this one away. On a night when the old Irish guards had to be good, the young Blue Devils’ backcourt was better.
“I thought we could sit down in a stance better,” Brey said. “We never did that enough to really make it interesting.”
Why this one unfolded the way it did, Brey wasn’t sure. Too much too soon? Too full of themselves after the Kentucky win? Too little in the tank to play a third ranked team in the first give games? A veteran Irish team knew that league play wasn’t going to be easy. Getting this one would be hard — and maybe even harder — than getting the win at Kentucky.
It was as difficult as expected for the Irish, but for all the wrong reasons.
At least there’s still plenty of time to get it right.
• DUKE 75, NOTRE DAME 65
At Purcell Pavilion
DUKE (3-2): Hurt 8-17 2-2 18, Tape 1-4 0-0 2, Goldwire 4-8 0-0 9, Roach 5-6 2-2 14, Steward 6-11 1-1 16, Brakefield 4-8 0-0 10, Baker 1-2 0-0 2, Moore 0-2 0-0 0, Williams 2-2 0-0 4. Totals 31-60 5-5 75.
NOTRE DAME (2-3): Durham 2-5 3-3 7, Laszewski 3-6 0-1 7, Goodwin 10-12 1-1 25, Hubb 4-9 2-2 12, Ryan 1-7 2-2 5, Wertz 3-7 2-2 9, Djogo 0-1 0-0 0, Sanders 0-2 0-0 0, Zona 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-49 10-11 65.
Halftime_Duke 41-34. 3-Point Goals_Duke 8-16 (Steward 3-4, Brakefield 2-2, Roach 2-3, Goldwire 1-4, Hurt 0-3), Notre Dame 9-21 (Goodwin 4-6, Hubb 2-6, Wertz 1-1, Laszewski 1-2, Ryan 1-5, Djogo 0-1). Rebounds_Duke 30 (Steward 7), Notre Dame 23 (Laszewski 8). Assists_Duke 8 (Hurt 3), Notre Dame 12 (Hubb, Ryan 3). Total Fouls_Duke 13, Notre Dame 11.