Noie: Another Triangle test for Notre Dame men's basketball at UNC

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Business trips to an area known as the Triangle often offer Notre Dame a basketball breath of fresh air, and for myriad reasons.

The weather in and around Chapel Hill, N.C. often is a needed change from the cold and snow up north. One time a few years ago before a game against North Carolina State, temperatures spiked near 70 degrees. That allowed Irish coach Mike Brey a chance to sit outside and enjoy a cup of coffee. The birds chirped. The sun shined. Life was good.

And when it was time to step into the gym for Atlantic Coast Conference games against Duke or North Carolina or State, it was even better. In high-energy atmospheres of high-level basketball, the Irish often stepped back out with a road win.

In a three-year span — from the 2014-15 season to 2016-17 — Notre Dame won eight of 10 games on Tobacco Road. It won for the first time in school history at North Carolina in 2015, then did the same at Duke a year later. In that magical 2015 season when it won three games in three nights in the ACC tournament at Greensboro Coliseum, it also erased an 18-point deficit in Raleigh to win a regular-season game in overtime.

Notre Dame also has won at Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, about a two-hour trek west on Interstate 40. If an ACC team is going to be taken seriously in a state where the game is, where the league office resides, they better secure success along Tobacco Road.

The Irish have enjoyed prime real-estate views along Tobacco Road.

But Notre Dame’s first two trips this season have been forgettable. It trailed by 30 points in last month’s 22-point loss at Duke. Nine days ago, it again trailed by 30 in an 18-point loss to North Carolina State. Brey lamented after that loss at PNC Arena the beatings that his teams took in the Triangle, and that he still had to come back again, this time for Monday’s rematch with No. 21 North Carolina.

But the Irish return for a third time in two weeks a different group. A happier group after two straight league wins. A healthier group with the return of senior guard Matt Farrell. A more determined group after a pair of league wins at home when Notre Dame got back to being Notre Dame.

“You feel a lot better going down there in the rhythm we’re in,” Brey said. “I’m taking a much more confident group to the Triangle than the first two.”

Injuries and ineffectiveness and rotation mix-and-match struggles took such a toll on the team before, during and after the previous two trips that they didn’t have much of a chance. Not against Duke. Not against State. But Farrell’s back with a vengeance from his ankle injury. So might be the Irish (15-10; 5-7 ACC).

The Notre Dame team that fans saw on its first two visits here isn’t the one they may see Monday. Not after Tuesday’s win over Boston College when it erupted for 96 points. Not after Saturday’s success over Florida State, when Notre Dame scored 84, including 32 the final 10 minutes.

How big of a step was last week for a program that needed one?

“Giant,” said junior guard Rex Pflueger.

Last week was a long way away from the frustrating baby steps and subsequent stumbles during scoring visits into the 50s and 60s during the seven game losing streak. The Irish have gotten healthy, and may have figured something out.

“We got back to playing how we play,” said sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs. “We know our identity now and just have to stay true to it and know things are going to fall into place. Staying true to who we are is a big part about it.”

So is Farrell, who’s played really good basketball the last two games. But he’s never seen the Carolina blue of the Smith Center. As a freshman, the flu kept him back on campus when Notre Dame won 71-70. The Irish were scheduled to make a return visit last season. A water main break in the city during the first weekend of February forced that game to Greensboro Coliseum, 90 miles away.

Farrell planned to step into the building for the first time during Sunday evening’s shoot-around.

“Great opportunity,’ he said.

An opportunity for the Irish to do more than just compete on an opponent’s home court. It’s a chance for Notre Dame to get a "wow" road win. The Irish had plenty of them the previous three years. They haven’t had any this year. Notre Dame did win for the first time in 10 years earlier this season at Syracuse. But that one doesn’t move the NCAA resume meter.

Getting one Monday would, even if it’s against a North Carolina team that might be running on some mid-February ACC fumes. Monday ends a demanding five-day stretch for the defending national champions. Carolina (18-7; 7-5) is coming off two Triangle rivalry games — and wins — since Thursday. It won at home Thursday over No. 9 Duke. It ventured 25 miles east Saturday for a payback win over North Carolina State. It may ease off the intensity throttle for a Notre Dame team that it beat by one-point last month in South Bend.

“That’s a game we felt we should have won,” Farrell said. “We have a lot of confidence. We lost seven games in a row, our confidence isn’t going anywhere. It has to stay.”

And has to travel. A couple of days out of the snow and cold and a statement road win beckon. The Tar Heels are there for the taking; time for the Irish to take them.

“We get a win down there,” said Pflueger, “our confidence is going to sky-rocket. Everybody’s going to be locked in.”

Buckle up.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger (0) drives against North Carolina’s Kenny Williams (24) during the North Carolina at Notre Dame men's NCAA basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA

WHO: Notre Dame (15-10; 5-7 ACC) vs. No. 21 North Carolina (18-7; 7-5)

WHERE: Dean Smith Center (21,750), Chapel Hill, N.C.

WHEN: Monday at 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN.

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

NOTING: This caps a stretch of three games in five days, all in the Triangle region of North Carolina, for the Tar Heels. North Carolina beat No. 9 Duke at home on Thursday, 82-78, before Saturday’s 96-89 victory at North Carolina State. … The Tar Heels are 5-1 at home in ACC play with the loss in overtime to North Carolina State. … Luke Maye scored 18 points with 11 rebounds and Joel Berry II added 15 points in the Tar Heels’ 69-68 victory Jan. 13 in South Bend. The game featured 12 ties and 24 lead changes. … North Carolina leads the all-time series 22-7, including 4-1 in Chapel Hill. …This is Notre Dame’s first visit to the Smith Center since a 71-70 victory on Jan. 15, 2015. … Both teams have been ranked as high as No. 5 this season. … The Irish are 1-3 against ranked teams with the win against Wichita State. … This is the second of three Saturday-Monday swings for Notre Dame. The Irish are 1-2 following Saturday’s 84-69 victory at home against Florida State.

QUOTING: “When this team gets flowing, the sky’s the limit for us.”

- Notre Dame sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs