Noie: Just a case of old guys being old and Irish believing this is their time
SOUTH BEND – Stick with this core, we were counseled countless times over the previous three seasons by a head coach and a group of guys that hadn’t done anything close to what they needed to do to ensure success for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.
Eventually, that head coach and those key contributors kept saying, it was going to turn. The wins in close games would come. The wins in big home games would come. All the disappointment would disappear.
But would it? What did they know and see and feel that we couldn’t know and see and feel? Something? Nothing? Was it all just wishful thinking?
Don’t look now, but it all might be starting to turn for Notre Dame.
Another blueblood college basketball program visited Purcell Pavilion on Wednesday. For the second time inside a window of less than a month, another blueblood college basketball program left with a loss.
Last month, it was Kentucky, then ranked No. 10 in the country. This month, it was North Carolina, in town for Notre Dame’s Atlantic Coast Conference home opener. A sleepy crowd aside – and you really wondered at times when the game got close whether most Irish fans in the crowd of 6,259 actually were asleep – Notre Dame ran its win streak to four, including two straight in the league, when this 78-73 contest went final.
You could point to a lot of reasons why and how Notre Dame moved to 8-5 overall, 2-1 in the ACC. Like a breakout performance from senior power forward/captain Nate Laszewski, who erupted for a season high 20 points on 11 shots after finding only two the previous game against Pittsburgh. Like the continued cementation of senior guard Dane Goodwin as one of the league’s most improved players. Goodwin realized that he could make a good living in the mid-range Wednesday, then scored 17 points to go with some key free throws late. Like fellow senior guard Cormac Ryan, playing an unheralded role as one of the first off the bench. Ryan just kind of goes out and does what he does, be it a big rebound here, a key steal there, and then a basket when the Irish need a basket.
Certainly, we can’t forget about the hometown kid, freshman guard Blake Wesley, who helped put away Kentucky with his last-second shot. Those heroics weren’t needed Wednesday, though Wesley went long stretches as the best guard – heck, maybe even the best player. In front of a dozen NBA scouts who will certainly find their way to track a few more Notre Dame games a little closer the next two months, Wesley scored 18 points with four steals, one of which he turned into a tomahawk dunk that should’ve sent the place up for grabs.
Instead, the fans in the stands in his city barely stirred. Come on, people. Yeah, it was late. Yeah, the weather outside is awful. But this wasn’t a home game against CSUN or High Point or Western Michigan.
This was NORTH CAROLINA. And you give THAT collective lack of crowd effort? Of course, if Notre Dame didn't get this one, those same fans who snoozed through it would be the first to blame the lack of a bench or a senior not playing like a senior or Mike Brey being Mike Brey. So there's that.
Fortunately for the fans, they weren’t all that needed Wednesday. How did this happen how it happened? Easy. With guys like Goodwin and Laszewski and Ryan and fellow senior Prentiss Hubb, who also delivered when he needed to deliver late, it may just be their time to do what they’ve done of late.
Last month at home against Kentucky. Last week in a league road with over Pittsburgh. Then Wednesday.
“We’ve grown a little bit this week as far as believing how to finish games,” Brey said. “We’ve shown some real toughness and poise and belief.”
A calm group down the stretch
This one was about old guys playing like guys. Old guys staying patient and poised and not panicking, something they seemingly did the previous three season. Old guys just figuring it out. Old guys winning a game that was there to win. Go do it. They did it.
After the Kentucky game, fans rushed the floor. After this one, the Irish just kind of walked off it. Like they expected to do what they did.
“We’ve been in so many of those game situations now, not just this year but our career,” Goodwin said. “We’re seasoned, if you want to say. But we just know what we have to do now in those positions and how to get through it.”
It’s been a heck of a hard haul for this Irish senior class. Tough home losses. Tougher road losses. Unfulfilled potential and promise. But the lessons they’ve learned, the losses they’ve had to absorb, seem finally ready to swing the other direction.
Brey could see it in the home team’s huddles the final eight minutes. Didn’t matter that Notre Dame had a 13-point lead following a Wesley 3 that should’ve blown the roof off the building but instead was met by little more than a collective shrug. Didn’t matter that the Irish were getting good shots and making good shots along the way. North Carolina was coming. Quickly.
Could the Irish answer? Oh, they answered.
At one point, Brey sensed that he needed to just get out of the way and let the old guys be old. He saw it in their faces. He saw it in their body language. He sensed it in their resolve. Like, these guys, this game, would be different than the league lessons learned over seasons past when they went a combined 20-36x-xx in conference play.
When Notre Dame needed to figure a way out, it figured a way out. The Irish led for 32:29.
Even upstairs in the press box, you never got anxious or nervous with how this one would play out. North Carolina was going to make a run, but Notre Dame had an answer. The Irish were fine. They played like it. They delivered like it. It’s something they hadn’t done last year or the year before that or the year before that.
A game that looked like it would end up a double-digit win for the home team instead got tight. Seven times over the final 6:09 this one was a one-possession game. Notre Dame led by seven with under seven minutes remaining. Then Carolina ripped off eight straight to lead by one.
Laszewski then delivered two crushing 3s and up by five went the Irish. That’s how this one went. Notre Dame would build a lead. North Carolina would slice into said lead. Notre Dame would then play as if to say, nope, that's all you’re going to get.
“You almost get calmer when those times come up,” Goodwin said. “Now, it’s funny to see we’re starting to pull through most of those.”
Last week at Pittsburgh. This week at home against Carolina. A team that didn’t have many answers the last three seasons, especially in league play, now seems to have plenty. From Goodwin. From Hubb. From Ryan and Wesley. Now from Laszewski. If this is how it's all coming together, it's starting to look like something. So are the Irish.
They’re different. This team’s different. This season also has a chance to be different.
“There’s a good vibe about this group,” Brey said.
About time to ride it and see where it all goes.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI
► NOTRE DAME 78, NORTH CAROLINA 73
At Purcell Pavilion
NORTH CAROLINA (73): Manek 4-11 0-0 9, Bacot 9-13 3-4 21, Davis 6-12 4-4 19, Love 6-12 0-0 15, Black 2-5 0-0 4, Harris 2-3 0-0 5, Dunn 0-2 0-0 0, Styles 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 29-59 7-8 73.
NOTRE DAME (78): Atkinson 1-4 0-0 2, Laszewski 7-11 0-0 20, Goodwin 7-11 3-3 17, Hubb 2-9 2-6 7, Wesley 8-18 0-0 18, Ryan 3-4 2-2 11, Wertz 1-4 0-0 3. Totals 29-61 7-11 78.
Halftime: Notre Dame 39-35. 3-Point Goals: North Carolina 8-22 (Love 3-6, Davis 3-7, Harris 1-1, Manek 1-5, Styles 0-1, Dunn 0-2), Notre Dame 13-31 (Laszewski 6-7, Ryan 3-4, Wesley 2-8, Wertz 1-3, Hubb 1-5, Atkinson 0-1, Goodwin 0-3). Rebounds: North Carolina 36 (Bacot 17), Notre Dame 26 (Laszewski 8). Assists: North Carolina 10 (Davis 5), Notre Dame 15 (Hubb 6). Total Fouls: North Carolina 13, Notre Dame 8. A: 6,259 (9,149).