Noie: Notre Dame can tap history for needed basketball karma

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Nothing else but the moment mattered.

Not a staggered start to a college basketball season that saw five losses before Christmas. Not the rag-tag combination of lineups and rotations that left the head coach so desperate for roster relief that he journeyed to California to recruit a high school football player to possibly join the team mid-year. Not two-straight league losses heading into what would be the biggest game of the 2011-12 season.

Nothing mattered at that time for Notre Dame but the chance to do something magical. Something that could kick-start the Irish for the rest of that season and leave an impression on the guys on that roster for the next 20 years.

On Saturday, Notre Dame (11-8; 1-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) hosts No. 3 Virginia (17-1; 5-1), in a sold-out contest at Purcell Pavilion (1 p.m., CBS). Nobody gives the Irish a chance. Some fear that Notre Dame may not score 40 points, may not shoot 30 percent from the field, may look totally overwhelmed and outmanned on their home floor. It could get ugly. Like look away or leave early ugly.

Just like what was supposed to happen Jan. 21, 2012.

At that point in what had already been a rocky ride, Notre Dame also was 11-8. It also was coming off two-straight conference losses, including at Rutgers (a 65-58 loss) five days earlier. Up next was a home game against top-ranked and undefeated (20-0) Syracuse.

Good luck with that one, the Irish were told, some by family members.

“My uncle was saying, you’ve got Syracuse next; that’s going to be an interesting one,” former Notre Dame point guard and current video coordinator Eric Atkins remembered. “No one gave us a shot to win that game.”

Why would they? Like this season’s Irish, those guys were wildly inconsistent and inexperienced at key spots. Point guard Jerian Grant and small forward Pat Connaughton were in their first collegiate seasons. That roster, like this one, was a wreck. Following an early-December loss to Maryland, one that former power forward Jack Cooley spent in the school infirmary, Mike Brey departed for a rare in-season recruiting trip. He flew to California to gauge the interest of high school senior Arik Armstead, now an NFL defensive end with the San Francisco 49ers, about joining the basketball team in January. The situation was that desperate. Armstead never enrolled, and the Irish wound up not needing him.

That year, like this one, saw Notre Dame lose a key senior to a season-ending knee injury. In 2011-12, potential league player of the year Tim Abromaitis went down in late November. This year, the team’s top perimeter defender, Rex Pflueger, was lost in mid-December. Both injuries threw everything up for grabs and led to games where nobody knew who might start, let alone play.

“We,” said Atkins, who was a sophomore starter and a year removed as the sixth man on a 2010-11 team that finished 27-7, “were kind of searching.”

Still were when Notre Dame left the RAC that Monday night in mid-January. Brey decided right then that Connaughton would slide into the starting lineup. He stayed a starter the rest of his college career. Brey also decided to flush any talk of that Syracuse game being a must-win league game. Notre Dame was 3-3 in the Big East at the time, but he counseled his team all week NOT to think of it as a league game.

Just look at it as a game. Another chance to go play. A chance to make some memories.

“Think of it as an opportunity as something you’ll talk about when you come back for reunions,” Brey remembered Thursday telling his team. “We were figuring it out.”

Notre Dame played loose and free and not worried about falling below the break-even mark in the league. Cooley scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a 67-58 win. It’s a game that still resonates with Atkins nearly five years after graduation.

“To this day, that’s the main game that we remember about the whole season,” he said. “Just us taking off and winning after that.”

That one game, that one win, salvaged a season. It was the first of what would be a school-record nine-straight league wins. The Irish went from searching to soaring. They finished 22-12, 13-5 in the Big East and went back to the NCAA tournament.

Success on Saturday may not lead to extended win streaks or journeys back into the national rankings or even a return trip to the NCAA tournament. What it could do is be a big morale boost for a Notre Dame team that needs to see the ball go in the basket more, and needs to finish a league game on the right end of the scoreboard.

“Just winning a game at this point is everything for us,” Atkins said. “It would do so much for this group. Getting a win in this league would give them so much confidence to keep going.”

Following Notre Dame’s most recent loss, a two-pointer Tuesday at Georgia Tech, Atkins grabbed freshman point guard Prentiss Hubb to lay a focus foundation for Saturday. He talked of looking not at big, bad Virginia and its pack-line defense that smothers the opposition, but of how Saturday can be a chance at something special. To play with that proverbial free mind, not worry about possibly slipping to 1-6 in the league, but about going out and having fun. Embracing the atmosphere, the opponent, everything that this game offers.

It’s all there for the Irish. Why can’t Saturday be their day like it was for Atkins and these guys in 2012? Why can’t the Irish — if only for 40 minutes — be the best team on the floor?

“That’s how we went into the Syracuse game, at least mentally,” Atkins said. “Our record didn’t show it, but we felt we were better players and had a great chance to protect home court and that’s what we did.”

The opportunity’s again there for Notre Dame to go get one that so few believe is getable. Maybe it will lead to a win streak and salvage a season that few believe can be salvaged.

“We’re overdue for a big win at home,” Atkins said. “We’re due for everybody to have a breakout night.”

Beating a team that’s seemingly unbeatable isn’t new to Notre Dame and former guard Eric Atkins, who did it to then-No. 1 Syracuse in 2012.

WHO: Notre Dame (11-8; 1-5 ACC) vs. No. 3 Virginia (17-1; 5-1).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at 1 p.m.

TICKETS: The game is a sellout.

TV: CBS.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM/96.1 FM).

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

MEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Guard Kyle Guy scored 12 points to lead four players in double figures as Virginia beat Wake Forest, 68-45, on Tuesday. The Cavaliers jumped to a 25-3 lead and led by as many as 22. … Virginia returns three starters off last year’s team that finished 31-3, 17-1 and first place in the ACC. … The Cavaliers were picked this preseason to finish second in the ACC behind Duke. … They’ve been ranked inside the top five of all 11 Associated Press polls and have been ranked as high as third. … Virginia has won at least 29 games four of the last five years, including a school record 31 last season. … Virginia leads the all-time series 11-2, including 4-0 at Purcell Pavilion and 6-1 as ACC colleagues. Notre Dame’s last win was 71-58 in the 2017 ACC Tournament quarterfinals. … Virginia is one of four Notre Dame repeat opponents. The teams meet Feb. 16 in Charlottesville, Va. … Virginia ranks first in the ACC in scoring defense (52.4 ppg.), field goal percentage defense (.374), 3-point field goal percentage defense (.246), free throw percentage (.772), rebounding defense (29.2) and assist/turnover ratio (1.66). … This is the first of two CBS games for Notre Dame, which is 0-3 this season against ranked teams. … The Irish are 1-2 at home in ACC play.

QUOTING: “I’m excited for these next opportunities that we have. We have a great stretch coming. It’s going to be a fun ride.” — Notre Dame junior guard T.J. Gibbs.