For the last six seasons in Atlantic Coast Conference play, one away arena has felt a lot like home for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.
It may be the building’s pillow-soft rims, or library-quiet crowds. A sea of empty red seats often made it easy for the Irish to settle in and compete. And win. After 40 minutes of work, Notre Dame would step out of Conte Forum on the Boston College campus with another coveted league road win.
Like when former Irish swingman Pat Connaughton had his aunt buy up hundreds of tickets for his final return visit during that magical 2015 season. That game felt more like a Connaughton family reunion than a conference contest. Or when former Irish guard Matt Farrell, a one-time Boston College commit, made sure buddy Bonzie Colson went out a winner in his final return trip to his native Massachusetts. Playing to honor an injured Colson and to quiet the BC student section one more time, Farrell tied the school record for 3-pointers (10) and scored a career-high 37 points in an 84-67 win.
Even in last season’s lost one, Notre Dame registered its lone league road win in New England thanks to a where-did-that-come-from afternoon as reserve guard Nik Djogo erupted for a career-high 21 points.
Save for the T-shirt tosses and dance cams, but similar to the empty seats in the student sections, Conte Forum has long played like Purcell Pavilion Northeast for Notre Dame. The Irish have never lost there (6-0) as a member of the ACC. That win streak has to hit seven late Wednesday (9 p.m., ACC Network) for the Irish to continue their climb toward inclusion in a certain postseason tournament.
What’s happened and what still has to for Notre Dame to hear its name called come Selection Sunday matters little. Irish coach Mike Brey doesn’t like to discuss it. His players have tried not to dwell on it. They don’t know. Nobody does. There’s really no reason to care. Yet.
Here’s the first rule of possibly going from nowhere to somewhere and sneaking in the side door of the NCAA tournament — don’t talk about it. Take those steps in silence. Work. Believe. Win.
The only number that matters is one, as in game at a time. It was that way last week when Notre Dame erased a 14-point deficit with 7:54 remaining to beat North Carolina. The Irish didn’t celebrate. They methodically turned the page. It was that way again Sunday when Notre Dame rolled out arguably its most complete league effort this season in an 87-71 victory over Miami (Fla.). The reaction? Who’s next?
Mustering motivation to keep this run going should be a breeze for the Irish (17-10; 8-8 ACC). If there’s one league game Notre Dame wants back — at least, this week — it’s the December loss to Boston College. By one point. At home. That capped the darkest week of the season for those players, that coaching staff, this program.
The Irish felt a whole lot sorry for themselves that Saturday afternoon. Notre Dame still was bruised from being battered earlier that week against now No. 9 Maryland in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Irish were overmatched and overwhelmed in the 21-point loss. Brey would say afterward it was like the varsity versus the junior varsity. He was being kind.
Notre Dame looked like it had no business being on the same floor as an elite team that night, or any night. When the Irish also lost guard Robby Carmody to a season-ending knee injury in the closing seconds, it felt like another year was again circling the drain.
The Maryland hangover and the hovering here-we-all-go-again feeling festered the rest of that week. In 12 previous meetings as ACC colleagues, Notre Dame had never lost to Boston College. Not at home. Not in Chestnut Hill. Never. That changed after a 73-72 Eagle victory. The game was there for the Irish taking, but you never got the sense that the Irish were going to make the plays needed to take it. They were too immature, too unfocused, too not all there.
Afterward, Brey pointed the finger only at himself, saying he’d done as poor a job preparing his team to play a critical league game as he’d done in 20 years. The Irish lost, but he’d failed. Notre Dame was dropped into a 0-2 hole in ACC play. Scrambling back to .500 seemed like it never would happen.
Since bottoming out at 2-6 with the Jan. 25 loss at No. 6 Florida State, Notre Dame has found itself. Six wins in its last eight games has pulled the Irish back to the break-even mark. A win Wednesday would bump the Irish over .500 for the first time in 772 days. That was back when they were 3-2 during the 2017-18 season. They’ve since gone 16-31 in league play.
It’s time for this team to take that step. To bottle what it’s done at home and take it on this extended road trip that will keep the Irish traveling party in Boston after this game before heading for North Carolina and Saturday’s game at Wake Forest. They’ll finish with two home games next week against Florida State (payback time) and Virginia Tech.
Nobody’s thinking that far ahead just yet. It’s just about Wednesday. T.J. Gibbs is on a ridiculous run in terms of shooting percentages in league play (.500 field goal percentage, .518 from 3, .902 from the foul line), but only ACC win No. 9 matters. Rex Pflueger’s four games away from setting the school record for games played, but only career game No. 137 on Wednesday matters. Another double double for points and rebounds awaits the machine-like John Mooney, but he’s only chasing consecutive ACC win No. 7 at Conte Forum.
Nothing else matters but to keep it rolling Wednesday at a place where the Irish know only success. Can’t stray from the script. Not now.