No. 25 Notre Dame men look to flip another second-half basketball switch

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

RALEIGH, N.C. – Second halves have been solid of late for the No. 25 Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

It gets to a point after intermission that the Irish understand it’s time to play. To move. To flow. To score. To put big numbers up on the offensive end and get the key stops on the other. It’s almost as if the Irish spend the first 20 minutes figuring it all out – what works, who’s hot, who’s not and how to proceed when it’s time to close.

Over the second halves of the last five Atlantic Coast Conference contests, which include three straight wins heading into Saturday’s matinee against struggling North Carolina State (14-13; 3-11), Notre Dame (20-7; 9-5) is shooting 46.7 percent from the floor, 36.9 percent from 3 and 82.5 percent from the foul line while scoring an average of 46.4 points. Not a lot of teams can match those outputs, one reason why the Irish eye a possible double-bye in the conference tournament for a third straight season.

“The first half, I think we let a lot of guys let the game come to them,” said senior captain V.J. Beachem, who often gets his game going post-intermission. “The first half, it’s kind of like, ‘OK, let’s see if we can find our rhythm, find our flow.’

“The second half, it’s like, ‘OK, we’ve got to get it going.’”

Such was the case earlier in the week when Notre Dame ventured to the northeast for a game against Boston College. Typically locked in and ready to deliver big road efforts from the jump, the Irish left that juice in the locker room. They allowed a season-high 49 points in the first half to a Boston College bunch that got a whole lot confident soon after the opening tip.

Some of that, Mike Brey would say later in the week, was due to fatigue. The Boston College contest closed a stretch of six games in 18 days. That included three away from home and a pair of two games in three days turnarounds. But part of it also was focus. A lack of it.

There weren’t many fans in the Conte Forum stands. What few there were really weren’t making much noise. There was nothing to quiet.

It was odd. The building felt like a library, and the Irish played like it.

“The atmosphere lulled us to sleep,” said sophomore guard Rex Pflueger. “It was weird not being in that fun, intensity-road game that we’re used to being in. It was tough to get going.”

But get going Notre Dame did. The Irish scored 45 points in the second half and mustered six straight defensive stops. It was almost as if they had flipped the switch at the break. Without Brey in the locker room – he left the players to figure it out for themselves – the Irish returned with a winning road effort.

That effort has often included a five-out small lineup. It's worked. At Boston College, the Irish went big and went zone. It worked. The second half is do-it time, and the Irish have found different ways to deliver.

“That’s when we really revitalize and we’re like, ‘We need to pick this stuff up,’” Pflueger said. “You’ve got to finish.”

What about the start? What about not allowing other teams to get confident in their own gyms in front of their own fans? What about getting just a few stops? What about keeping teams that are at the bottom of the league standings down and delivering an early knockout?

Overrated, Brey said.

“Sometimes you play the first half to get to the second half,” he said. “Our guys know the second half has been their time. We’ve played much improved and our best defense in the second half. We’ve gotten in amazing offensive rhythms.

“I like that habit right now.”

That habit might be hard to break Saturday as Notre Dame finds itself in a similar situation as it did in New England. Like Boston College, North Carolina State has struggled to succeed. At anything. The Wolfpack have lost six in a row and seven of eight. On Thursday, it was announced that coach Mark Gottfried will finish his sixth season and not be back for a seventh.

It’s a team that could be beaten, and should be beaten, but much like with Boston College, a team that playing at home, could erupt with a big effort led by point guard Dennis Smith Jr., a likely NBA lottery pick come summer.

A seven-day break from game action beckons the Irish after this one. Will they get much of the next week off carrying a four-game league win streak or wondering how they let a chance at league road win No. 5 get away?

“We’ve got to acknowledge how talented a team they are,” Beachem said. “It’s going to be huge for us to get off to a great start.”

“We’ve got to come in focused and play this game like any other ACC game,” Pflueger said. “We need that intensity and passion from the get-go.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

MEN'S BASKETBALL

WHO: No. 25 Notre Dame (20-7 overall; 9-5 ACC) vs. North Carolina State (14-13; 3-11).

WHERE: PNC Arena (19,772), Raleigh, N.C.

WHEN: Saturday at noon.

TV: ESPN.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

INTERNET: WatchESPN.com.

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

NOTING: Notre Dame enters the weekend in fifth place in the ACC; North Carolina State is in 14th. … Dennis Smith Jr., scored 27 points and Maverick Rowan added 12 in North Carolina State's 97-73 loss on Wednesday at home to No. 10 North Carolina. The Wolfpack were outrebounded 41-25 and allowed 60 points in the paint. … North Carolina State has lost six in a row by an average of 19.1 points and seven of eight. Four of the losses have been by at least 24 points. … The Wolfpack last won Jan. 24 at Duke, its first win at Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1995. … Smith leads the league in assists (6.74) and looks to become the first North Carolina State player to lead the league in that category. … The Wolfpack rank 12th in the ACC in field goal percentage defense (44.8), 13th in steals (5.15) and turnover margin (-1.89), 14th in scoring margin (-0.9) and 15th in 3-point field goal percentage defense (35.9) and scoring defense (80.5). ... Three starters return off last year's team that finished 16-17, 5-13 and 13th place in the ACC. … North Carolina State was picked this preseason to finish sixth in the league, one spot ahead of Notre Dame. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 6-4 including 4-0 on the road. … A win Saturday gives the Irish at least 10 league wins for a third consecutive ACC season. … Notre Dame is 1-0 all-time at PNC Arena. The Irish erased an 18-point deficit to force overtime before winning, 81-78 on Jan. 25, 2015.

QUOTING: “The second half is the most important half. You can always bounce back with a good second half.”

• Irish sophomore guard Rex Pflueger.