Noie: These Irish should have no problem mustering motivation for this one
This one’s personal.
At least, it should be. It better be.
When North Carolina visits Notre Dame late Wednesday (9 p.m., ESPN2), it will be the first of 10 scheduled Atlantic Coast Conference home games for the Irish (7-5; 1-1). It's only their third of 20 scheduled league games (thanks, Duke). There’s still a long way to go in this season and in league play, but this one has to carry a little more league weight for Notre Dame than Saturday’s game at Georgia Tech or next week’s visit by Clemson.
It’s not just another game. It can’t be.
Last time these teams played, the Tar Heels did way more than just steal the Irish lunch money. They swiped their debit cards, credit cards and any crypto currency they might’ve owned. They punched them in the stomach, and a few times about the face. While they were at it, the Tar Heels pantsed the Irish on national television, stripped them of their competitive dignity and their basketball pride while seemingly also having someone record the whole incident and splash video of it across social media – Facebook, the ‘Gram, everywhere – for all to chuckle.
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It was that ugly.
It occurred in the second round of the 2021 ACC Tournament. Having beaten then-No. 11 Florida State to end the regular season, which also snapped a 28-game losing streak to ranked teams, Notre Dame opened tournament play with a comeback win over Wake Forest that culminated in a Trey Wertz buzzer beater.
Piggy-back those games with navigating coronavirus pandemic protocols over a long and trying and something dark season and the Irish were running on proverbial basketball fumes that second night at Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum.
Give everything – give something – for a third straight game? Wasn’t going to happen.
North Carolina seemingly sensed that Notre Dame was a fragile group, psychologically and physically. Then it pounced. The Tar Heels ran and scored and defended and rebounded and smothered a tired and emotionally empty opponent. The Irish deficit went to 10 before halftime, then 20, then 30 after halftime. Eventually, they trailed by 40. By the time a 42-4 Tar Heel avalanche ended, which including 22 straight points, Notre Dame was down by 50 – 101-51.
North Carolina led for 37:55. The only Notre Dame lead occurred less than two minutes in and lasted all of 23 seconds. The Tar Heels basically ran a layup drill and scored 56 points in the paint. The Irish didn’t so much give up as they collectively curled up in an arena corner.
They didn’t compete, and seemingly didn’t care. The weight of the previous seven months and all it took just to get to Greensboro caved them in. It was the worst loss for Notre Dame under coach Mike Brey. The worst league loss in school history. Among the top five losses in the 100-year history of the program.
When it ended, when the season ended, a few of the Irish walked back to the locker room, grabbed their phones and returned to the court. They wanted to preserve the moment still on the scoreboard.
North Carolina 101, Notre Dame 59.
A Charlotte native whose father is a North Carolina graduate, Wertz grew up rooting for the Tar Heels. He dreamed of playing in Chapel Hill. He keeps a photo of that score on his phone. Wertz glances at it every so often. He looked at it as recently as a few days ago. Just. Because.
“The whole thing was a perfect storm,” Wertz said. “We couldn’t really weather it.”
Irish power forward/captain Nate Laszewski also snapped a scoreboard shot.
“It’s a reminder that we have to be better,” he said. “We know that’s not our level of play. We’ll take that into account preparing for this game. That wasn’t us.”
Promises of payback and plans to even that lopsided score and all those other motivational ploys don’t usually hold up in college basketball. There are too many games, too many other daily issues to address, for a team to put its time and effort and energy into one opponent. Notre Dame has big plans this season, plans that include winning double-digit league games for the first time since 2020 and getting back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017.
But it also owes North Carolina for what happened 301 days ago. Notre Dame can cash that in Wednesday, in its home league opener, on the heels of having won three straight and four of five.
“The guys who were here last year, I don’t think anybody’s forgotten about it,” Wertz said. “It’s definitely in the backs of our heads.”
Wednesday’s a big game for Notre Dame, undefeated (5-0) at Purcell Pavilion. Last time Notre Dame played a game against a college basketball blueblood in its building, freshman guard Blake Wesley knocked down a pull-up jumper with 11.6 seconds remaining last month to beat then-No. 10 Kentucky. Wednesday’s a league game for Notre Dame. Last time Notre Dame played a league game, senior guard/captain Prentiss Hubb knocked down a fadeaway jumper with 5.6 seconds remaining last week to win at Pittsburgh.
Notre Dame gets both – a blueblood and a league game – at home.
After weathering its share of struggles in November (remember Las Vegas?) and early December (Boston College, anyone?), those two success snapshots have allowed the Irish to feel good about themselves. A confidence that’s been so fragile and fleeting the last few years seemingly has stabilized. How good can Notre Dame be? See Kentucky and Pittsburgh. Two different games, two different types of opponents, but both important in their own separate and similar ways. Oh, and both Notre Dame wins.
“We’re a more confident group,” Brey said. “You kind of feel like you’re starting to believe a little bit.”
Believe that they can compete and close out games. Against ranked opponents. Against league opponents. Now go and do it against one of the league’s, and the sport’s iconic outfits. Notre Dame likely had less than zero belief it could compete the last time these teams met. So, it didn’t.
Wednesday can be different. It should be different.
That’s why this one’s personal.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI