Noie: Familiar finish for Notre Dame in ACC opener

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Get used to it.

The script shown Tuesday in the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against one of the league’s elite might be one offered often over the next few months by the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

At home and on the road. On holidays or weekends or during the week. At night or like Tuesday’s matinee. Notre Dame will be good in some areas, not so good in others. There will be times when the offense flows and the defense digs in. Others, when nothing seems to work. Anywhere. From anyone.

League games when Notre Dame battles and stays close, but just not close enough. Or good enough.

Notre Dame made it interesting in segments against No. 10 Virginia Tech, but when it came time to shift everything into another gear, the Hokies did. The Irish (10-4; 0-1) remained stuck in neutral while being handed an 81-66 loss at Cassell Coliseum.

Virginia Tech pilfered a page from previous Notre Dame playbooks in this one. The Hokies flooded the floor with old guys who can make shots. A lot of them. Guys who moved the ball and made the extra pass and just kind of played. Especially in the second half. Down by two at intermission after trailing by as many as 13, Notre Dame really didn’t have a chance. Not when the Hokies shoot 71.4 percent from the field and a staggering 88.9 percent (eight-for-nine) from the 3-point line. They hit step-backs. Contested looks. Open offerings. Even when Justin Robinson throws one up at the end of the game to beat the horn, of course it goes in.

There’s a reason why the Irish trailed by as many as 18 in the second half. The Hokies were too good. In a lot of ways, they looked like so many Irish teams past on offense. They kept attacking and kept the Irish on their heels. Eventually, Notre Dame ran out of answers. And options. And chances.

“Just couldn’t get over the hump on the road against a really good team,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “They made every big shot every time we kind of got within striking distance.

“They have a great rhythm.”

That’s how Notre Dame used to play when former Big East player of the year Ben Hansbrough was running the show. How they played with Jerian Grant directing it all. Drive and kick and shoot and score with confident guys. Old guys. Talented guys.

Notre Dame might get back there some day. For now, everything’s a struggle, and might be the rest of the way.

“All it takes is one game to get over the hump,” said junior guard T.J. Gibbs, who scored a team-high 19 points. “We’re right there. We can feel it.”

Virginia Tech entered league play ranked second in the conference in field goal percentage at .522. It showed. The Hokies have shot makers everywhere. Notre Dame entered league play ranked last in the league — truly foreign territory for a Brey team —at .426 percent.

That also showed. While the Hokies strung together runs of buckets in the second half, it was too much of make, miss, miss, miss, make, miss, miss from the Irish.

Freshman Prentiss Hubb would like to erase his ACC debut. He kept shooting — 10 shots overall, eight from 3 — and kept missing. Long. Short. Left. Right. From deep. From close. Like the football team’s effort last weekend against Clemson in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl, it was hard to watch Hubb, who made only one shot (a 3). He’s a combined 8-for-57 (14.0 percent) from the floor, 3-for-31 (9.0) from the 3 in seven games since Dec. 4.

“He hasn’t shot it well for us for a while now,” said Brey. “But he shot it well for us early in the season and I think he’s a better shooter than he’s been lately.

“He can’t turn shots down. He’s still gotta shoot it for us.”

It was a tough trip all the way around for Notre Dame, whose departure was twice delayed Monday before the Irish sat on their bus back at South Bend International Airport for more minutes while the flight plan was reconfigured. Notre Dame couldn’t fly into its preferred airport — in Roanoke — because of low clouds and fog Monday. That forced them to fly from South Bend to Lewisburg, W.Va. — an hour’s trip — before a two-hour bus ride through the mountains into Blacksburg.

The Irish arrived three hours behind schedule. That meant no shoot-around at Cassell. No down time. Just a meal and a Mass and then off to bed before the New Year arrived.

Not the way to open league play, but maybe it’s all better from here. Maybe.

“We’re relentless,” said sophomore swingman D.J. Harvey. “We take a lot of punches but just ran out of gas at the end.”

With only seven scholarship players available for a league road game — junior guard Nik Djogo was back on campus with the flu — walk-on guard Liam Nelligan may find his way into the rotation by the middle of the month. Power forward Chris Doherty, who dresses in uniform but only in case of emergency, may have to weigh burning his planned/preferred redshirt year by February.

All seven scholarship guys saw action the first six minutes. Three then limped around the court with injuries. Gibbs and Juwan Durham both rolled their ankles. Nate Laszewski hobbled off late with a bruise right knee. He left the locker room with a bag of ice on his leg, but should be fine moving forward.

He has to be.

“We don’t have time to be hurt,” Gibbs said. “There’s no more guys. Just gotta keep pushing through.”

Down four from a rotation that started the season at 11 is just way too much. In this atmosphere; in this league. The Irish can fight and battle and show some resilience, but eventually, that wears down, and the rotation wears out.

“We,” Brey said, “gotta try and grow something out of this.”

Quickly, because the next challenge is coming. Then another. And another. That’s league play. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for Notre Dame. Just go with what it has and believe that it’s good enough.

NOTRE DAME (10-4): Durham 1-2 0-0 2, Mooney 3-4 2-4 9, Hubb 1-10 0-0 3, Gibbs 6-13 2-3 19, Harvey 6-13 3-6 16, Laszewski 5-9 0-0 14, Nelligan 0-0 0-0 0, Goodwin 1-5 0-0 3. Totals 23-56 7-13 66.<

VIRGINIA TECH (12-1): Blackshear 9-18 2-2 21, Alexander-Walker 7-8 2-3 17, Hill 7-8 0-0 17, Robinson 3-9 0-0 7, Bede 1-2 0-0 3, Horne 1-1 0-0 2, Wilkins 0-0 0-0 0, Outlaw 5-9 0-0 14. Totals 33-55 4-5 81.<

Halftime—Virginia Tech 30-28. 3-Point Goals—Notre Dame 13-34 (Gibbs 5-10, Laszewski 4-8, Mooney 1-1, Goodwin 1-2, Harvey 1-5, Hubb 1-8), Virginia Tech 11-18 (Outlaw 4-7, Hill 3-4, Alexander-Walker 1-1, Blackshear 1-2, Robinson 1-2, Bede 1-2). Fouled Out—Durham . Rebounds—Notre Dame 30 (Mooney 10), Virginia Tech 24 (Blackshear 7). Assists—Notre Dame 13 (Gibbs 4), Virginia Tech 19 (Robinson 8). Total Fouls—Notre Dame 10, Virginia Tech 13. A—8,008 (10,052).

Notre Dame guard Prentiss Hubb, right, drives the ball against Virginia Tech guard Justin Robinson Tuesday in Blacksburg, Va.
Virginia Tech forward P.J. Horne (14) dunks the ball against Notre Dame guard D.J. Harvey Tuesday in Blacksburg, Va.