Road woe rare for No. 19 Notre Dame men's basketball

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It was a pretty sweet situation that the No. 19 Notre Dame men’s basketball team found itself in late Saturday night in midtown Atlanta: up six and less than five minutes from a fourth consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference victory.

All three factors should have been more than enough for the Irish to finish a second-half comeback with an offense ranked first in the nation for adjusted efficiency.

But for one of the few times for Notre Dame, the numbers didn’t add up.

Just when it looked like everything again was coming together at the right time — winning time — it all came apart. Instead of sneaking out of Georgia with another league road win, another league comeback win, Notre Dame staggered home to Indiana with a 63-62 loss to an unranked Georgia Tech team that days earlier had been going nowhere fast.

It was the fewest points scored this season by Notre Dame and the first time the Irish lost a conference road game by a point since a 75-74 loss to Connecticut in 2006.

You have to go all the way back to 2005 to find the last time Notre Dame lost a conference road game in the closing seconds that it seemingly had sewn up. That Sunday afternoon 11 years ago in snowy Washington, on the same court that will host the conference tournament in two weeks, Georgetown freshman center Roy Hibbert dropped in a dunk with 0.1 seconds remaining to dump Notre Dame, 55-54.

Saturday was probably just as painful in that it was an elimination game of sorts. Barring a truly bizarre twist, the loss all but keeps Notre Dame (18-8; 9-5 ACC) from any realistic chance of winning the regular-season league championship. With two weeks and four league games remaining, Notre Dame is tied with Duke (20-7; 9-5) for fifth place. The Irish own the tie-breaker and would open the conference tournament as the No. 4 seed given that Louisville (21-6; 10-4), currently tied with Miami (Fla.) and Virginia for second place, is ineligible for postseason.

Instead of returning to campus early Sunday morning with good thoughts about getting really greedy when their three-game road swing continues Wednesday at Wake Forest, the Irish were thrown back into bounce-back mode.

Again.

“It was a familiar script,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “We just couldn’t get that last stop. You were going to have to defend to escape.”

Stops were relatively easy to come by in the second half. Notre Dame limited Georgia Tech to 30 percent shooting (10-of-30) and won the rebounding battle, 21-18, the final 20 minutes. It was on the other end that the Irish had a few issues.

Save for a second-half stint when the five on the floor moved and cut and made the extra pass and operated with ease, Notre Dame never really did find an offensive rhythm. Each possession to start the halves offered a hint that this was going to be ... Difficult.

Bonzie Colson air-balled a baseline jumper to start the first half; Steve Vasturia turned it over to open the second. The Irish were out of sorts and out of character. Notre Dame finished with double-digit turnovers (10) for the first time since its last loss, Feb. 3 at No. 11 Miami.

Despite all the stops and starts and staggers, Notre Dame found its footing and was up six with 4:42 remaining. It then managed only one basket the rest of the way.

“We had good looks,” said Irish guard Steve Vasturia. “Couple shots here and there just didn’t go down.”

Everything about the Irish offense Saturday was too inefficient to win. Everything about it was a grind. Many possessions ended in challenged shots and late-clock situations. Nothing was easy on a night when something had to be.

“We've just gotta execute better down the stretch,” said guard Demetrius Jackson. “Personally, I’ve got to be more decisive and we’ve got to keep being confident and keep doing whatever we can to finish games.”

Having taken the better part of two days off during the mandatory conference bye week, the Irish showed signs of layoff lethargy. Getting up and down the floor against one another in scrimmage situations was a little different — OK, a lot different — than banging around with the Tech big bodies of Nick Jacobs and Charles Mitchell. The two combined for 23 points and 18 rebounds against an Irish front line that had been so good and so steady during the recent stretch.

For the first time in a while, the Irish bigs weren’t the best on the floor.

“We had a hard time dealing with them in the post,” Brey said.

Brey burned timeout after timeout after timeout — three in a span of four minutes during the critical second-half stretch — so the Irish core could catch their collective breath. He admitted afterward his guys were gassed.

It was hard to focus on fumes.

The Irish could have used one of those timeouts on their last possession. A scramble for a loose ball following a Jackson miss saw the junior guard corral the ball for an instant near his foul line. With no one in a gold uniform nearby as a pressure release, Jackson had no choice but to smother it before the Yellow Jackets smothered him.

Jump ball.

Alternating possession, Georgia Tech ball.

“Tough luck for us,” Vasturia said. “We had to go down and defend and it just didn’t happen.”

Prior to a Georgia Tech timeout, it looked like the home team would have to decipher a 2-3 zone defense. It’s the same look that Notre Dame trotted out in a similar late-game, game-winning situation in November against Alabama.

Crimson Tide guard Retin Obasohan then cut right through it from the right side with eight seconds left and cut down the Irish with a game-winning layup. Given a moment to reconsider Saturday, Brey switched to man.

Different defense, same result.

Surrounded by three defenders on his drive — the guy guarding him (Vasturia), the big at the basket (Zach Auguste) and the guy closing too late to potentially swat the shot from behind (Colson) — Tech guard Marcus Georges-Hunt still got into the Irish gut, also from the right side, got the shot off with a second to spare for the win.

Afterward, Brey did what all coaches who see their team come up short in that situation do.

What if ….

“We showed zone and they probably drew up a zone play,” Brey said. “Maybe you stay zone.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI