Frustration certainly festered.
For someone still a starter on a Notre Dame men’s basketball team that had found its roll and its rhythm largely without him, the last couple of Atlantic Coast Conference games were hard. Senior power forward Juwan Durham opened as one of the team’s top five, but he’d often find himself more on the bench than on the floor.
A lineup shift from playing two power forwards to playing small was most costly to the 6-foot-11, 223-pound Durham, who logged a season low 10 minutes in Saturday’s victory over Georgia Tech. On Wednesday, Durham was out of the game barely four minutes in.
Here we go again? Not on this night.
Mike Brey, who’s been around this minutes block before with past players, kept encouraging Durham to stay positive, to stay ready. Eventually, the rotation would swing back his way where he’d be on the floor more. Where he’d still be a key guy. Where he’d have chances to contribute.
Wednesday was that night against Pittsburgh, and Durham delivered.
Durham scored 11 points with four rebounds and three blocks in 19 minutes as the Irish (14-8; 5-6) stretched their Atlantic Coast Conference win streak to three with an 80-72 victory. The Irish still went small for stretches, but they also played big. So did Durham.
“I’m just trying to go out there and play as hard as I can,” he said. “I’m always going to be confident in myself.”
Durham’s confidence may have hit a season high — even a career high — following the near-miss at No. 8 Florida State on Jan. 25. He tied his career high with 16 points. He grabbed nine rebounds. He almost single-handedly did stuff late to take the Irish to the brink of what would have been their biggest win.
In the two games that followed, he scored a combined four points with three rebounds in 24 minutes.
“I had my down days,” he said. “I didn’t let that overshadow the big picture. I know the big picture for us is to go as far as we can and do some damage in the ACC.”
Nine days ago, the idea of Notre Dame doing any of that in the ACC would have seemed foolish. The Irish were winless at home. They’d lost four of five. Everyone was wondering. Searching. Three consecutive home wins have everyone feeling a whole lot better. Including Durham.
“We just knew that we had to keep fighting, keep playing as hard as we can,” he said. “As long as we do that, we’ll be fine.”
The Pittsburgh game meant a little more for senior guard T.J. Gibbs. It was the last regular-season game against the team that his older brother, Ashton, was a standout guard from 2008-2012 and a first team all-league selection in the Big East in 2011. The Panthers beat the Irish in their lone meeting last season. One last win gave Gibbs a 4-1 career record over his older brother’s team.
“It’s always good to have the home bragging rights,” said the New Jersey native. “To go home and not let my brother at the dinner table say anything.”
Gibbs scored a game-high 21 points. He averaged 21.0 in the three home wins and currently ranks first in league games for free throw percentage (.902), and second in field goal percentage (.542) and 3-point field goal percentage (.500).
Lost in the all-league season that double-double machine John Mooney is having has been Gibbs, who’s been just as worthy of post-season recognition. Gibbs is averaging career bests for field goal percentage (.429), 3-point field goal percentage (.417) and free throw percentage (.898).
“T.J. Gibbs is playing as good as anybody after a really tough year last year,” Brey said. “I’m so proud of him.”
The text with a similar theme from the head coach to the starting point guard arrives with regularity. Maybe after Prentiss Hubb is good in a game. Or he struggles in a game. Brey draws a similarity between Hubb and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the way both kind of orchestrate everything their teams do.
Thus, the text, which reads, ‘You’re my Mahomes.”
“Oh, he loves it,” Brey said of being compared to the Super Bowl’s most valuable player. “He has total control of this thing.”
Brey knows how to push the right buttons with Hubb. At the under-eight minute timeout of Wednesday’s first half with Hubb struggling to score, he grabbed the point guard by the shoulders, got close and barked one word three times.
“That’s what they said to him in Atlanta (against Georgia Tech on Jan. 15) and he went on a personal 10-0 Michael Jordan (scoring) run,” Brey said. “He was laughing, like, ‘OK, Coach, I get it.’”
Hubb then dropped two 3-pointers in the final 69 seconds to give the Irish some needed breathing room and a nine-point halftime lead.
“He’s got a chance to be one of the best guards in the league next year,” Brey said. “He’s my guy, man.”
• Two data points that help shape the 68-team NCAA tournament field are the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) and the Basketball Power Index (BPI), which have kind of, sort of replaced the long-standing Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).
Notre Dame currently carries a BPI of 52 and a NET of 59. Those numbers would keep the Irish in discussion to earn a possible at-large bid. Numbers currently working against the Irish? Their overall strength of schedule (148) and non-conference strength of schedule (321).
• Of the 99 brackets the NCAA tournament tracked by The Bracket Matrix, Notre Dame does not yet appear on any tournament bracket.
• Notre Dame woke Thursday alone in seventh place in the 15-team ACC. Prior to this three-game home win streak, the Irish were tied for 13th.
• Irish sophomore guard Dane Goodwin saw his run of six straight games scoring in double figures snapped Wednesday. Goodwin finished with six points on 2-for-10 from the field, 0-for-3 from 3.
• Wednesday was career game No. 131 for Irish graduate student guard Rex Pflueger. He’s nine games from setting the school record for career games played. Pflueger is in line to pass Pat Connaughton’s career-best 139 games on March 7 — Senior Day — against Virginia Tech.
Pflueger missed last season’s final 23 games following left knee surgery.
• Something about playing Pittsburgh agrees with Irish sophomore power forward Nate Laszewski. In two career games against the Panthers, Laszewski is averaging 17.0 points per game. He hit for a career high 23 last season and had 11 on Wednesday.
• Mooney’s 10 rebounds Wednesday pushed him to 804 in his career. He’s the 15th player in program history to have at least 800 rebounds. On Thursday, Mooney was named one of 10 finalists for the Karl Malone power forward of the year honor. Mooney was not included on the John Wooden Award midseason watch list.
• The Irish have won three consecutive league home games for the first time since late in the 2016-17 season when they beat Florida State, Georgia Tech and Boston College.
• Six of Notre Dame’s final nine league games are against teams with losing records.