Analysis: Did Notre Dame men's hoops turn corner with win at Duke?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Easing himself into one of the high-priced, cushioned blue seat along the baseline near the visitor’s bench at Cameron Indoor Stadium late Saturday afternoon, Notre Dame junior guard Demetrius Jackson allowed the game face to go away.

With a hoodie pulled over his head and a cell phone constantly buzzing in his right hand with yet another congratulatory text message, Jackson leaned forward and flashed that mega-watt smile.

This one felt good. Really good. Potentially season-making good.

Making history on a lot of levels does that.

With 13 games left in the regular season, nobody knows what’s in store the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference way for sixth-place Notre Dame (12-5; 3-2 ACC). The Irish have a chance to get some separation from the rest of the league pack this week with home games Wednesday (Virginia Tech) and Saturday (Boston College). A season that has to date been a slippery slope — two steps forward, one back — may have gained some needed traction Saturday in the unlikeliest of venues.

“It’s mid-January, the Dow Jones ain’t good but ours is up, baby,” Irish coach Mike Brey said.

Up after Jackson scored 24 points with four assists and two rebounds, ran the entire Irish show for another full 40 minutes while Bonzie Colson did his best Superman impersonation, minus the red cape and the blue tights. Working as a reserve for the second-straight game, a plan that Brey scrapped to start the second half when he really needed the sophomore’s hard work and hustle, Colson scored a career-high 31 points as Notre Dame withstood one run after another for a 95-91 victory over No. 9 Duke.

It was the first time in school history that Notre Dame left the historic gym with a win. The Irish did it after scoring the most points in an ACC game during their three-year league history. It was the most points Notre Dame has scored in a conference road win since going for 103 at Providence on Feb. 21, 2009. It also was the program’s first road win over a Top 10 team since beating then-No. 2 Pittsburgh, 56-51, on Jan. 24, 2011.

Needing some signature success that could slingshot them through the rest of the regular season, the Irish may have gotten it in an area where their game continues to garner respect from locals who know and love their college hoops.

Saturday was the sixth win in Notre Dame’s last seven trips into the heart of ACC country.

“When you’re playing along Tobacco Road well, ACC fans really respect your program,” said coach Mike Brey, who heard from many a North Carolina fan at the team hotel prior to Saturday’s game. “They’re coming up to me saying, ‘Coach, we really love your team.’

“Down here, they really appreciate our program and they’ve seen some of our best performances in the state.”

They saw it again Saturday.

In the days and months leading up to Saturday, the Irish had talked often about continuing to carry a confidence that they could compete with almost anyone in the country. Sure they could score with one of the nation’s most efficient offenses (now ranked first nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency a 123.4 by kenpom.com.) but there remained too many games (Alabama, Indiana, Monmouth, Pittsburgh) that Notre Dame came up short at winning time.

Each of those contests were there for the taking, but they each got away.

This one didn’t. Not even after the Irish let a six-point lead late in the second half slip. Not after Duke twice took a one-point lead in the final 1:28. It was time for this Irish outfit to make a stand. A stand they couldn’t make earlier in the year.

“To finish game situations when we’re in game situations gives us a lot of confidence,” Jackson said. “We’ve grown so much throughout the whole season. We’ve got to use this to boost us into something great.”

As efficient as the Irish were offensively in hanging half a hundred in the second half on the defending national champions, the much-maligned, analyzed, debated, criticized defense finally delivered. Notre Dame was able to dig in and defend, chase down loose balls and hold its own on the backboard.

“The key stops that we could not get in Orlando, we got,” Brey said.

The Irish also played poised. Together. Old. A year ago in Cameron, they seemed dazed and confused. Bewildered and wondering if they even belonged. Following his second 3-pointer in the second half, Colson ran downcourt, looked over at the Cameron Crazies and howled a “Woooooooooooo!”

The Irish were having fun.

Each Duke run strengthened Notre Dame’s resolve, something that Jackson believes will help in moving through the rest of the regular season.

“It’s going to give us a lot of confidence going forward,” he said. “We’ll just continue to get better and some of the things we worked on and got better at showed today.”

One league road win, however massive, guarantees Notre Dame nothing the rest of the way. The Irish corral a few votes in this week’s national polls as they continue to solidify an NCAA resume. After falling off the national radar during Thanksgiving weekend, Saturday showed that Notre Dame might again be ready for prime time.

As great as the day was — arguably top five in Brey’s tenure in South Bend — it’s also time to do even more. Be cruel and confident at home. Be just as good on the road. Make the required moves to become among the league’s elite and build on the ability to beat ranked teams.

If Notre Dame can do it at Cameron….

“Playing here, we can play anywhere,” Colson said. “We try to find a chip on our shoulders coming into every game and we found it tonight.”

Now it has to stay there.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI