Bounce-back hoops opportunity takes Notre Dame to Clemson

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Forced for the first time this college basketball season to deal with the disappointment of not answering a challenge on any level the last time out, No. 10 Notre Dame had little time to feel sorry for itself.

Some 48 hours after returning to campus following a 30-point loss to No. 4 Duke in the most lopsided loss in the 15-year tenure of coach Mike Brey, Notre Dame set out again in search of regaining its Atlantic Coast Conference road swagger.

It was there the first four times the Irish played away from home. Notre Dame won at North Carolina, at Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech and, as recently as 16 days ago, at North Carolina State where it erased an 18-point first-half deficit to win in overtime.

The Irish had confidence. The Irish felt as invincible as ever away from home.

Something has since been missing. It wasn’t there early on Jan. 31 before a late surge fell short at unranked Pittsburgh. And it certainly wasn’t there Saturday in Notre Dame’s first visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium in 21 years.

It wasn’t that the Irish lost at Cameron. It was the way they lost – knocked back on their collective heels minutes in and effectively knocked out before the first half was half over, the Irish showed little willingness to fight.

It has to be there Tuesday when Notre Dame (21-4, 9-3 ACC) makes its first visit to Clemson (14-9, 6-5). Any and all motivation the Irish need to close this stretch of three games in seven days should jump back to last weekend in Cameron, where they trailed by as many as 35 points.

Brey said afterward that he planned to tear up the final stats sheet and throw out the video from Saturday’s game. The Irish watched none of it Sunday as a new week offered a fresh start. Brey mixed up the jerseys in practice – no designation of starters or reserves – and had his team hold a “spirited” scrimmage so they could get back to playing. Saturday was such a wipeout that it felt more like 40 minutes of survival than competition.

The Irish have moved on to Clemson, keeping a little edge of all they didn’t do the last time out.

“You’ve got to play a little angry and take it out on the next opponent,” said sophomore guard Steve Vasturia. “It’s just about heart and we’ve got to have that. We’ve got to have that toughness for 40 minutes, not for little clips.

“We have that in us.”

Where it’s been hiding since the 25-point pounding of Virginia Tech on Jan. 22 has been a mystery. Notre Dame showed glimpses of it against North Carolina State and at home against Duke, late at Pittsburgh and early against Boston College.

On Saturday, the Irish were really good for all of the first 60 seconds. Once Duke locked in defensively and got rolling offensively, a focus that has been so solid, so strong, so consistent much of the season seemed awfully shaken and unsteady.

After making it look so easy while going 69 days with only one loss, the Irish have been handed a hard lesson in losing twice in eight days.

Time to buck up and do some tough stuff from the start instead of flipping that proverbial effort switch once a red flag or two, or three, is raised.

“There’s motivational aspects you can use from that (Duke) game, but at the same time, it’s how we can bounce back and how can we right the ship on a great season we’ve had so far and not let this linger,” said senior captain Pat Connaughton. “We can’t let it allow us to jump ship. We’ve been on a pretty steady ship this season and we want to maintain that.”

The Irish have found themselves in tough spots recently because the opponent has put them there. On Saturday, Duke knew that to be better against Notre Dame than it had been 10 days earlier in the loss in South Bend, it needed to neutralize Irish senior guard Jerian Grant. Get after Grant, the Blue Devils stressed, and they could get after the Irish.

With Grant given little room to do anything but breathe, an Irish offense that has been in a consistent flow much of the season fell completely apart. Notre Dame connected on its first two shots – both 3-pointers – the opening minute Saturday before Duke dialed up its defensive pressure to flame-thrower intensity. Notre Dame couldn’t counter. Its next seven possessions produced four missed shots and three turnovers.

Game effectively over.

Playing defense has been a season-long concern, and allowing Duke to shoot a mind-numbing 81 percent from the floor in Saturday’s first half did nothing to alleviate that worry. But if the Irish struggle that much on the other end, where shots and sharing never surfaced, there’s really trouble.

“When you can’t score it, you maybe don’t dig in as hard defensively ‘cause you’re searching …. ’How am I going to score it?’” Brey said. “Grant and Connaughton got caught in that (Saturday), ‘God, we can’t get anything going,’ and then you don’t guard as much defensively.”

Clemson’s going to guard Notre Dame. A lot. The Tigers have the length and athleticism to bother the Irish on the perimeter and around the rim. They allow 60.3 points per game, third in the league.

For Grant, and the Irish, it’s important Tuesday to be patient, even if that means working off the ball. Don’t try to make something happen right away. Stir the Tigers up, make them guard, make easy plays early and get a few stops on the other end, which can kick-start some easy looks in transition.

“When we can attack a defense before it’s set, that’s really our best way to kind of get him going,” Brey said.

If Grant is neutralized, Notre Dame has to keep cutting and swinging the ball and not standing and watching and waiting for him to free up to be the primary handler.

“We’ve got to do a better job offensively and moving without the ball,” Vasturia said.

Grant saw his pursuit of conference player of the year take a massive hit Saturday, but he stressed afterward that six more regular-season games was most on his mind. A win Tuesday would go a long way in forgetting about the dismantling by Duke, and reinforce that seeing Notre Dame in second place in the ACC as the middle of February nears is no fluke.

“We’re moving on,” Grant said. “We still have a long way to go for the rest of the season and we still can do something special.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Duke's Tyus Jones, center, chases the ball with Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson, left, and Bonzie Colson during the second half of Saturday's game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.AP Photo/GERRY BROOME

WHO: No. 10 Notre Dame (21-4 overall, 9-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. Clemson (14-9, 6-5).

WHERE: Littlejohn Coliseum (10,325), Clemson, S.C.

WHEN: Tuesday at 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN2.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

WORTH NOTING: Clemson saw its four-game ACC win streak snapped Sunday with a 56-45 loss at Miami (Fla.). … The seventh-place Tigers close with four of their final seven games at home, where they are 9-4. … Clemson has non-league losses to Gardner-Webb, Rutgers and Winthrop. … The Tigers are 1-3 against ranked teams with league losses to Louisville, North Carolina and Virginia and a win over Arkansas. … Clemson ranks last in the league in scoring at 62.3 points per game and third in scoring defense at 60.3. ...The only starter lost off last year’s team that finished 23-13 was ACC defensive player of the year K.J. McDaniels, a second-round NBA draft pick. … Clemson was picked this preseason to finish 11th. … Irish senior guard Jerian Grant’s older brother, Jerai, averaged 6.7 points and 4.3 rebounds in 17.9 minutes during four seasons at Clemson (2007-11). He’s currently playing in Latvia. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 1-0 with the meeting last season in South Bend, a 68-64 double overtime Irish win. … Notre Dame last played in the state of South Carolina in March 2002, losing to No. 1 seed Duke, 84-77, at the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville during the second round of the NCAA tournament. … Clemson is one of four repeat opponents for Notre Dame. The teams close the regular season March 7 in South Bend … The Irish have the next six days away from game action after this game before hosting Wake Forest on Feb. 17. … Notre Dame has lost its last two league road games but remains in second place in the ACC behind Virginia.

WORTH QUOTING: “They’re one of the best teams in the country.”

-Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski after beating Notre Dame by 30 points Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.