Closing first halves a concern for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Breakdown offensive drills rolled off the practice plan late last month when Notre Dame needed to just get out and again flow.

Shooting free throws slipped off the daily schedule late in non-conference play when the head coach decided that his team had spent too much time on them. Soon after it did, the Irish grew to be really good in that area.

With nearly 100 practices over the last six months already in the books, there’s probably not much new Notre Dame can add to the daily routine.

Yet following a whole lot of shakiness in two games over the weekend at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, the Irish returned to practice Sunday with something entirely different penciled on the plan.

Long before coaches and players and managers and fans gathered to watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show (5:30 p.m., CBS) high atop Purcell Pavilion in Club Naimoli, Irish coach Mike Brey placed four minutes on the clock and a 30-30 score on the board.

The Irish were required to play it out as if it were the final four minutes of the first half. Could his core guys, Brey wondered late Friday night back in Verizon Center, work through that stretch without being so careless with the ball and reckless with their decisions?

Didn’t happen in either game in Washington.

“Here it is, the NCAA Tournament and there are things we need to work on and try to be better at before we play again,” Brey said.

Notre Dame limps into a return tournament trip for the second time in as many seasons and the 11th time during Brey’s 16 seasons after a failure in the focus department in closing first halves against Duke (an improbable overtime win) and North Carolina (a record-setting lopsided loss).

In both games, the Irish treated the end of the first half as if they couldn’t wait to retreat to the locker room. To do what? Lay down? Pound down some Gatorade? Allow Red Panda to roll out her halftime balancing act? Whatever the reason, Notre Dame twice wanted nothing to do with the conference’s biggest stage late in the opening 20 minutes.

Guard Demetrius Jackson dropped in a pair of free throws to give Notre Dame a 35-32 lead on Duke with 5:10 remaining in Thursday’s first half. That’s when the Irish came apart.

They missed four shots. They attempted no free throws. They committed three fouls. They had six turnovers—three shy of their game average. It allowed Duke to run off 13-straight points and take an eight-point halftime lead.

The Irish were even worse down the first-half stretch Friday.

Sophomore Bonzie Colson’s bucket brought Notre Dame within one, 23-22, with 6:12 remaining. One positive step here, a good possession there and the Irish surely could set themselves up nicely for a solid second half.

Notre Dame then went 0-for-4 from the floor, missed a foul shot, committed one foul and turned it over five times. North Carolina pounced all over those problems to balloon a one-point advantage to 19 thanks to an 18-0 run.

“We can’t allow ourselves to be in that large of a hole,” said senior power forward Zach Auguste. “We have no choice but to move on and prepare for our next game.

“We have one more life left.”

As for what number seed will be attached to that life when Notre Dame is handed one of 36 at-large bids and where the Irish are headed is anyone’s guess. Has been for weeks.

Brey expects a No. 6 or 7 seed.

Thursday’s victory over Duke may be enough to bump up the Irish to a 6. Notre Dame enters tournament play with a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 33 and a strength of schedule (SOS) of 26 according to The Irish have four victories against teams in the RPI Top 25. The two wins over Duke (20, RPI, 9 SOS)— one at Cameron Indoor Stadium and the other Thursday— will rank high with the committee. So will wins over North Carolina (6, 32) and Louisville (17/33).

A win over Iowa (28/28) carried Notre Dame’s numbers through December and January, but a late-season Hawkeye slide (5-7 in last 12) makes that just an OK win. Iowa has fallen to a possible 6 seed.

“Doesn’t (Thursday’s win over Duke) get you to a 6?” Brey wondered. “We have a very good resume.”

But maybe better fitting for a No. 7 seed. The Irish have lost four of their last seven. The have losses to two teams – Alabama (67) and Florida State (77) – that own what would be considered “bad” RPIs. Notre Dame also fattened up its 11-7 league record with over half its wins — six — against four teams (Boston College, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, Wake Forest) that finished a combined 15-57 in league play. Notre Dame twice beat Boston College and Wake Forest, which were a combined 2-34 in the ACC.

And the Irish aren’t exactly passing the all-important eye test of late.

Various bracket projections have Notre Dame as near as St. Louis (300 miles from campus) and as far away as Spokane, Wash. (1,890). How about a bounce to the borough of Brooklyn? Back to Notre Dame’s Big East roots in Providence? Trek to the Plains and Oklahoma City?

Notre Dame has been connected to each city in recent Bracketology weeks.

Possible No. 10 seeds include Cincinnati, Connecticut, St. Bonaventure, South Carolina, Temple, Virginia Commonwealth and Wichita State.

What seed the Irish earn and where they’re headed later in the week matters little to Brey. In many ways, neither does what happened against North Carolina. Having trailed by as many as 37 points before scoring a season low for points was going to sting, Brey awoke Sunday morning with a smile.

“What’s great to know, especially when you’re down 20, 30 in the second half,” Brey said, “is, I’m showing up on Selection Sunday on the board.”

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI