Notre Dame men's basketball in search of a full 40

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Back on Tobacco Road, it's back to bounce-back mode for the No. 23 Notre Dame men's basketball team.

Since the start of 2014-15, Notre Dame has played 12 games after a loss. Each time — whether at a neutral site, at home or on the road, in or out of Atlantic Coast Conference play —the Irish have rebounded with wins. Heading into Wednesday’s game at Wake Forest (11-16; 2-13), Notre Dame (18-8; 9-5) has played 66 games since last losing consecutive games to close a forgettable 2013-14 season. A win Wednesday ties the school record for games played without consecutive losses. That was last accomplished from 1984 to 1986.

But for the first time in 11 years, Notre Dame will have to bounce back after losing a lead and a league road game in the final seconds. The Irish were about one second away Saturday from a fourth straight league win, but couldn’t deliver a final defensive stand at Georgia Tech as Marcus Georges-Hunt dropped in the game-winner, 63-62.

It’s the first time Notre Dame lost a league road game it seemingly had sewn up since 2005.

The Irish look to return to their winning ways in an area of the country that’s been downright good to them the last two years.

Notre Dame has won six of its last seven games in four different venues in the state of North Carolina since the start of 2014-15. The Irish won for the first time last season at North Carolina. They won for the first time this season at Duke. They look for their first win in Winston-Salem against suddenly surging Wake Forest.

“We need this one,” said sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson. “We want to play; we want to get back out there and get the win.”

Now in the second of three straight league road games over eight days, Notre Dame knows that to be better Wednesday, shovels cannot be an option again in the first half.

Digging out of early deficits has become all too common of late. A confident, cohesive club that knows it will find its bearing and find a way to win in the second halves, the Irish have been too inconsistent, too indifferent, too just there in going through the motions to start.

Notre Dame is 7-3 over its last 10 league contests, but its average first-half deficit in those games has been eight points. The Irish have trailed by double figures three times, including a season-high (or low) 20 points at Syracuse in late January. In the last five outings – three of them wins – Notre Dame has trailed by 12 at No. 12 Miami (Fla.), by 15 at home to No. 7 North Carolina, by seven at home to No. 11 Louisville and most recently, by nine at Georgia Tech.

The only game the Irish haven’t trailed was the Feb. 8 victory at Clemson. Notre Dame was really good that night. How now can the Irish bottle that road effort early?

“It’s just about coming out strong,” Colson said. “We just have to be better as a unit. We’re going to make mistakes, but let’s be better for 40 minutes and be strong.”

For as much swagger as Notre Dame has shown in second halves, the first halves have seen the Irish staggered. Eventually, they figure it out, but know that’s a trend that doesn't bode well this time of year.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a slow start for us,” said junior swingman V.J. Beachem. “It’s just staying locked in for all 40 minutes. It really seems to be the second half, the last 20 minutes or really the last 10 that we clamp down.”

Irish coach Mike Brey acknowledges the differences between the first half and the second, but prefers not to dwell on the discrepancies. Much like earlier in the year when his team struggled to make free throws, Brey figures the more he hammers on being better early in games, the more the Irish are likely to struggle.

He believes his guys will figure it all out, just like they did at the foul line.

“Sometimes we kind of play the first half just to get to the second half,” Brey said. “That may not be a bad thing.”

That’s because the Irish have often found their focus. For as bad as they’ve been in the first half, they’ve been even better in the second. Over that same 10-game league run, Notre Dame has led opponents by an average of 9.4 points in the second half. That includes as few as four points (Virginia Tech) and as many as 30 (Boston College). It failed to lead only twice – in road losses to Miami and Syracuse.

Saturday’s nine-point early deficit eventually flipped to a six-point Irish advantage. Notre Dame jumped up by six on Louisville, and by five against North Carolina. It has played the second half with the poise and purpose of a team still chasing one of the league tournament’s four double byes.

“If we can bring our swagger in the first half,” Beachem said, “a lot of times we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in in the second half.”

Notre Dame might be walking into a second straight league road venue at the wrong time. Last week, Georgia Tech seemed to figure something out three days before the Notre Dame game with a key road win against Florida State. That confidence carried over. On Sunday, Wake Forest snapped its 11-game league slide by jumping all over Boston College in a 74-48 home win. It looked like a different Demon Deacon team, which is cause for concern.

“They really get rolling at home and they feel good at home,” Brey said. “They’re a completely different basketball team. They’re not a team with that league record at home. They don’t play that way. We have to be really ready for that.”

And ready from the start.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

WHO: No. 23 Notre Dame (18-8 overall; 9-5 ACC) vs. Wake Forest Tech (11-16; 2-13).

WHERE: Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum (14,665), Winston-Salem, N.C.

WHEN: Wednesday at 9 p.m.

TV: RSN (Comcast Channel 101). The game also can be seen on the internet via ESPN3.

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: Wake Forest snapped an 11-game league losing streak Sunday at home against winless Boston College. The Demon Deacons led 41-14 at halftime and won 74-48. Making his first career start, Wake Forest center Doral Moore scored a career-high 19 points. The 7-foot-1 freshman also had seven rebounds, three blocks and two steals. His first three baskets – the first six Wake points of the game – were dunks. … Wake Forest also has a home league win over North Carolina State. … Wake Forest is 6-7 at home. … The Demon Deacons are without leading scorer (15.8) and rebounder (10.2) Devin Thomas for a second straight game. Thomas is serving a two-game suspension for violation of athletic department policy. Forward Cornelius Hudson, who was averaging 7.8 points per game, was dismissed from the team for the same violation. … Thomas scored 19 points with eight rebounds when the teams met Jan. 31 in South Bend, an 85-62 Notre Dame win. Five Irish scored double figures led by senior captain Zach Auguste, who had 21 points and 12 rebounds. Fellow senior captain A.J. Burgett made his lone start and had a career-high 14 points with five rebounds in 25 minutes. In the five games since, Burgett has scored five points with two rebounds in 14 minutes. … Burgett has not played in the last four games — three DNP-CDs (did not play, coach’s decision) and one game missed to a sprained left ankle. … Wake Forest leads the all-time series, 3-2. … Notre Dame’s three-game league road trip and regular-season league road schedule concludes Saturday at Florida State. … The Irish are 3-4 on the road in league play.

WORTH QUOTING: “Their record in the ACC might not show it, but they’re a pretty good team and a good team at home. It’s a team we can’t take for granted, can’t take lightly. They’re just as hungry as we are.”

-Notre Dame sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson.