SOUTH BEND — Once upon a college basketball time not long ago, there was a certain standard around the Notre Dame men’s program that offered two words to ranked teams that traveled to town on those cold winter evenings.
Competitiveness and toughness seldom were issues for the Irish. They would match the compete level and the toughness level and dish out some of their own over 40 minutes. Big plays were met by bigger plays from the Irish. Big shots were matched with bigger shots from the Irish. Sometimes punched early, they would respond by punching back often.
As time wound down, you could strike up the band, get the crowd that didn't leave early to beat the traffic on their feet and count on another win against a ranked team. Yep, got another one. But there is no band and there is no crowd and there still is no win over a ranked team after Wednesday's game against No. 20 Virginia Tech.
The losses that ranked teams used to carry out of the arena now are carted out by the home team. Notre Dame took another one Wednesday, 62-51. It was consecutive loss No. 28 since it last beat a ranked team, now more than three calendar years and counting. Ten losses have come at Purcell Pavilion, now just another gym for just another program trying to keep from drowning in the unforgiving Atlantic Coast Conference waters.
This one sure looked headed for loss No. 28 after about 10 minutes. Virginia Tech did almost everything right and right from the start in securing the win. The game wasn’t nearly that close. It felt so lopsided, so over so soon that the final numbers were wiped from the arena scoreboards before the teams even made it to their locker rooms.
Poof! Like this one never happened. Except it did. Again.
This one was a playground kind of a contest. Want to keep the court? Better be ready to battle. The Irish got smacked early and never really recovered. They just played it all out. Moved through the motions.
“It’s kind of tough,” said junior guard Prentiss Hubb. “Our shots weren’t really falling (the Irish opened 2-of-12) and they came out really aggressive. We fought back a little bit.”
Hubb actually mentioned how the Irish were able to get back within nine. Like, that was a high point. A silver lining on another dark night. Nine-point deficit alert! Whoo-hoo! They'll take it.
Notre Dame then trailed by double digits the final 18:27.
First time the teams played 17 days earlier in Blacksburg, Va., Mike Brey said the Hokies had treated the Irish like the junior varsity. The rematch felt worse. It wasn’t so much that the Hokies treated the Irish badly. It was that they dismissed them. Like, you’re not going to get anything going tonight.
Notre Dame (5-9; 2-6 ACC) never did. At one point, it had twice as many turnovers (six) as baskets (three). That's just not good.
“I don’t want to see them again,” said Brey. “They’ve shut us down completely twice now. We’ve got no answers.”
Stop reading if you’ve heard this all before, which means you’re not likely to get to the end of this paragraph, let alone the column. On a night when the Irish needed toughness and needed it from the opening tip, they got so very little of it that a game that some felt might be there for the taking slipped away long before halftime.
Notre Dame actually took a 2-0 lead. That shouldn't be news. It was Wednesday because it was the only time the home team led. In its building. After having won two straight in the ACC. After aiming for that elusive win over a ranked team. Less than nine minutes after taking that lead, the Irish were in a double-digit deficit. You know what came next.
Scramble time. Panic time. Shot-missing time. Unable to make many plays time. It’s more of the same for Notre Dame, which just doesn’t have enough of anything, enough of everything, to stay with teams above it in the league standings. Those are the haves. Notre Dame's among the have-nots. Bunched in there at the bottom with the Boston Colleges and the Wake Forests. Misery loving company.
Virginia Tech is good. There's no denying that. Second-year coach Mike Young has some dudes. In this league, that’s a must. Gotta be a dude every single night in this league to have a chance. Bring your lunch or have it taken from you. The Irish again had it taken from them.
“It’s just a heck of a group,” Brey said of the Hokies. “They’re tougher. They’ve got tougher guys.”
Hubb single-handedly kept this one from getting way out of control. He scored 17 of his team’s 22 points in the first half. He finished with 22 and was the only Irish to score double figures.
“I just wanted to make winning plays for my teammates,” Hubb said. “I just had to take it upon myself to do whatever I can to help my teammates win.”
Other than Hubb, there were a whole lot of disappearing acts out of the home team on a night and in a league where you can't disappear.
Nate Laszewski couldn’t get going and couldn't get more than four shots from the field because he couldn’t get the ball. He was smothered by waves of long and active and determined defenders who took turns shutting him down. Dane Goodwin got the ball but couldn’t get it to fall. He took 13 shots. He made three. Juwan Durham fell into foul trouble and spent more time on the bench than in the lane. Even making layups became a chore. Taking care of the ball became a chore.
Everything was an issue as the Irish trailed by as many as 15.
Three nights earlier, Notre Dame looked like the Notre Dame of old by going for 43 points in the second half. On Wednesday, Notre Dame didn’t get to 43 until a Goodwin drive with 6:45 remaining.
In. The. Game.
Notre Dame’s 57 points were a season low.
Where does Notre Dame go from here? Besides the obvious answer — Pittsburgh on Saturday — good question. Brey’s tried everything over the last few weeks. Ramp up the effort in practice. Bench the five starters to start a game. Give them tough love. Go easy on them. It's worked here and there, until nothing did Wednesday. Everything about this team and this season has kind of run its course. And there's still 12 league games scheduled.
What button can Brey next push?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I may be running out of buttons.”
He's out of them. We're done with buttons. The Irish aren't very good and aren't going to get any better. The heralded junior class still plays like underclassmen. Either they're not that good or they haven't been properly developed. Probably both. It's been a collective effort.
Just have to ride this out, wherever it leads. Then what? Deal with that one day down the road.
• No. 20 VIRGINIA TECH 62, NOTRE DAME 51
At Purcell Pavilion
VIRGINIA TECH (62): Aluma 5-11 4-4 14, Mutts 7-13 0-2 14, Alleyne 7-14 0-0 15, Bede 1-6 0-0 3, Cone 1-6 0-0 3, Cattoor 4-9 1-2 13, N'Guessan 0-0 0-4 0, Bamisile 0-2 0-0 0, Maddox 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-62 5-12 62.
NOTRE DAME (51): Durham 1-4 1-2 3, Laszewski 3-4 1-3 7, Goodwin 3-13 2-2 8, Hubb 8-20 3-5 22, Wertz 3-9 1-2 7, Djogo 1-2 0-0 2, Morgan 0-2 0-0 0, Sanders 1-2 0-0 2, Zona 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-56 8-14 51.
Halftime_Virginia Tech 31-22. 3-Point Goals_Virginia Tech 7-24 (Cattoor 4-7, Alleyne 1-3, Bede 1-5, Cone 1-5, Aluma 0-1, Bamisile 0-1, Maddox 0-1, Mutts 0-1), Notre Dame 3-18 (Hubb 3-8, Djogo 0-1, Morgan 0-1, Goodwin 0-4, Wertz 0-4). Rebounds_Virginia Tech 44 (Aluma 12), Notre Dame 36 (Laszewski 10). Assists_Virginia Tech 13 (Mutts, Alleyne 4), Notre Dame 8 (Hubb 3). Total Fouls_Virginia Tech 17, Notre Dame 15.