Noie: Notre Dame effort lacks early in lopsided league loss to N.C. State

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

RALEIGH, N.C. – One year later on the same day of the week leaving the same Atlantic Coast Conference road venue, the Notre Dame men’s basketball program is a shell of its former swagger-filled, road-winning, confident self.

A college basketball season that held much promise and potential for something special continued to spiral into an abyss for an injured and ineffective Irish team that has lost seven straight games following a 76-58 setback Saturday to North Carolina State at PNC Arena.

It matches the longest losing streak during the 18-year tenure of coach Mike Brey, who’s 1-7 since becoming the winningest coach in program history against North Carolina State back in South Bend on Jan. 3. That’s when there was still some good stuff going on around the program. Since then, not so much.

The last week, not at all.

It reached a point Saturday as Brey sulked back to the locker room following his post-game presser that he remembered making the same trek back to what was a happy locker room in the same building last February.

He had to laugh. Life sure was good. The Irish had secured an all-important league road win. It was conference victory No. 10. Outside, the sun was shining. The sky was Carolina blue. Notre Dame was in prime position for a serious run at a double bye in the league tournament (it snagged one) and was headed back to the NCAA Tournament.

As Brey headed toward the locker room Saturday, life wasn’t as good. For the Irish, it flat-out stunk. Outside, the sun again was shining. The sky again was Carolina blue. But the Irish packed up and headed for their charter flight home knowing that the double bye in the league tournament is no longer an option. As likely is another trip to the NCAA tournament. Maybe even a winning league season. A winning season altogether.

“We are struggling like heck,” Brey said.

On a day that required the Irish to be at their focused best, they weren’t. Their minds seemingly were everywhere but on the task in the sold-out arena. Just over three minutes in, it was already 9-0 North Carolina State. One knockout punch of a run was all it took. The Irish were on fumes. Their body language was bad. Their focus? Worse.

“We just didn’t come out ready,” said senior guard Matt Farrell, who returned to the starting lineup with 16 points in 32 minutes. “We’ve got to have that ‘dog’ mentality. We’ve put ourselves in this situation.

“We don’t feel sorry for ourselves; nobody else does.”

A new month was supposed to offer a new direction for a team desperate for it. Maybe this week will bring some change for a program that has gone over four weeks without a win. There’s seemingly no sign of any success in sight, even with Boston College next up Tuesday at home.

This whole show’s going somewhere, but nowhere anyone expected.

Just when it couldn’t get any worse for Notre Dame, it did. Just when the Irish couldn’t labor any longer for extended stretches trying to score points, they did. In the first half alone, the Irish went on runs of 2:25, 3:25, 3:36 and 5:43 without a field goal. That early double-digit deficit crept toward 20 points, then 30. It became painful to watch.

And maybe worse to play.

“It sucks; it’s not fun,” Farrell said of the struggles. “It’s testing our character. It’s testing our work ethic. It can only make us stronger.

“We’ve got to be better as a whole team.”

Farrell’s finger pointed every direction. He said that the staff has to be better. He said that the players have to better. He said that the managers have to be better. Everybody has to be better. They’d all agree. But how much better can they get?

The deeper this streak goes, the worse it all gets. This program’s a mess. The more that Brey tried to mix and match rotation combinations in the first half – maybe Nik Djogo delivers, or Elijah Burns, the more shots the Irish missed, the more turnovers they committed, the more frustration festered. There just aren’t enough good shot-makers to keep the Irish competitive in this league.

North Carolina State saw the chance to drop a big hammer on Notre Dame, and drop one it did.

“They have a great vibe about them,” Brey said. “And we don’t.”

Graduate student Austin Torres, who scored a season-high nine points with six rebounds in a career-high 27 minutes offers effort, but that’s not going to do much for what ails the Irish. They need guys who are going to put that round, orange ball in the basket. Once. Twice. Three times in a row without missing open looks, without fumbling it away, without playing as if they’d just picked up the game last night.

“What kills us is we’re getting open looks early in a game and we can’t make ‘em,” Brey said. “For us right now, who we are offensively, we have to make some of those to have a chance.”

They haven’t the last two games, and, as a result, have had no chance.

“We’re just trying to find ourselves,” Torres said.

It’s been one step forward and two back for Notre Dame since All-American Bonzie Colson was lost with a broken foot for eight weeks on Jan. 3. And it got no better late last week when Farrell returned to the starting lineup. But in Brey’s effort to get him one more round of defensive work in Thursday, sophomore power forward John Mooney went up for a rebound, landed awkwardly on his right foot and sprained his ankle. He started Saturday but played eight scoreless minutes. He then watched the second half.

Just one of those years, Brey said Saturday. Next man in? It’s been more like who’s the next man out?

Five nights earlier down here in neighboring Durham, Duke’s student section sent Notre Dame home with chants of “N-I-T! N-I-T!” toward the end of a 22-point loss. Brey remembered the chant Saturday.

“My mindset is, thanks for the compliment,” he said. “I’ll take that right now. Where do I sign?”

Even that’s no certainty. This much is – Notre Dame may be good enough to compete in the ACC, but nowhere near good enough to win.

NOTRE DAME (13-10): Mooney 0-0 0-0 0, Geben 4-8 1-2 9, Gibbs 4-12 3-5 14, Farrell 5-13 2-2 16, Pflueger 3-10 0-0 7, Gregory 0-0 0-0 0, Torres 4-5 1-3 9, Burns 1-2 1-2 3, Nelligan 0-0 0-0 0, Djogo 0-4 0-0 0. Totals 21-54 8-14 58.

N.C. STATE (16-7): Abu 4-7 0-0 8, Yurtseven 5-11 0-1 10, Dorn 7-13 5-7 21, Johnson 2-4 0-0 5, Beverly 6-9 1-2 16, L.Freeman 2-2 3-3 7, Newman 0-1 0-0 0, Hunt 0-0 0-0 0, A.Freeman 4-9 1-1 9, Batts 0-4 0-0 0. Totals 30-60 10-14 76.

Halftime--N.C. State 37-21. 3-Point Goals--Notre Dame 8-24 (Farrell 4-10, Gibbs 3-7, Pflueger 1-4, Djogo 0-3), NC State 6-18 (Beverly 3-5, Dorn 2-3, Johnson 1-1, Yurtseven 0-1, Newman 0-1, Batts 0-3, A.Freeman 0-4). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Notre Dame 24 (Torres, Geben 6), NC State 34 (Yurtseven 10). Assists--Notre Dame 13 (Pflueger 7), NC State 20 (Johnson 10). Total Fouls--Notre Dame 13, NC State 14. A--19,500 (19,722).

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

North Carolina State's Braxton Beverly (10) defends as Notre Dame's Matt Farrell (5) dribbles during a 76-58 Irish loss, Saturday in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/ETHAN HYMAN)