Is the collective karma finally starting to turn for an Irish program starved for success?

Tom Noie
ND Insider

Columns about the shaky state of the Notre Dame men's basketball program following another Atlantic Coast Conference loss were penned so many times the last few years that only the opponent's name seemed to change.

Cut. Paste. Tweak. Edit. Print.

Notre Dame guard Cormac Ryan (5) tries to get round Georgia Tech guard Michael Devoe (0) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

That’s the way it’s gone for far too long for Notre Dame, especially in league play, especially on the road, especially against Georgia Tech. Either early in the game or late, a disappearing act would be the chief cause for another tough-luck league loss.

Saturday then happened in a place where seemingly only bad did for Notre Dame. The Irish were bad early, then good, then shaky, then really steady and before you knew it, in overtime. Then they were walking off the floor having stretched their league win streak to three and their overall win streak to five following a 72-68 victory. 

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League games in midtown Atlanta since Notre Dame started going there as a repeat opponent in 2014 have never been easy. They’re grinders. They’re ugly. They’ve too often resulted in the Irish making a lot of plays to stay in the game, but never quite enough to win the game. 

Saturday looked more of the same, but these Irish, maybe they are indeed different. They’re confident when they shouldn’t be confident. They believe when they shouldn’t believe. They’re winning games in ways they haven’t normally done. Or won. 

Another close one in that building? Yep. 

“They’ve all been like that here,” said coach Mike Brey. “You could feel it coming.” 

Feel it coming after Notre Dame trailed by eight points barely halfway through the first half. So much for a solid road start. Feel it coming after the Irish got some good offense flowing to twice lead by as many as five the first 11-plus minutes of the second half. Feel it coming after both teams had chances to slam the door shut in the closing minutes, but didn’t.

“We’ve really grown in some areas of mental toughness, believing we’re going to finish,” Brey said. “To find a way to finish it, our old guys were really good.” 

Six previous losses for Notre Dame at McCamish were by a combined 19 points. This one looked headed for number seven. Trailing by four with 1:41 remaining, the Irish kept plugging, kept playing, kept believing. They needed an additional five minutes to get it done, but they got it done. Notre Dame moved to 9-5 overall and 3-1 in the ACC. By night's end, that was good for third place. 

Yeah, you read that right. 

Third, not 13th. 

Yeah, there’s a long way to go until March and there were some holes in the Irish game Saturday, just as there were holes earlier in the week at home against North Carolina. Just as there were holes the previous week at Pittsburgh. Just as there were holes when league play began in early December with the no-show loss at Boston College. 

But to be here in the second full week of January and see Notre Dame in third place after it was in 15th (last) five weeks ago and given all the bad this program has endured the previous four seasons (a combined 28-46 in ACC play), take it and run with it. Embrace it. Enjoy it, for however long it lasts.

Feels good, doesn't it?

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey yells to his players on the court during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against the Georgia Tech Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Make plays and keep believing 

On the road, it was a big dose of freshman guard Blake Wesley, who erupted for a game-high 22 points (hello, a second ACC freshman of the week honor), including a gotta-have 3 to give the Irish a one-point lead with 51.8 seconds remaining. Come overtime, it was a bigger dose of three seniors — Dane Goodwin, Prentiss Hubb and Nate Laszewski — all of whom a lot of people wanted kicked to the curb earlier in their careers.

Brey joked last week that it would be nice to finally get those three senior captains all rolling Saturday. None really got rolling, but look at the play-by-play in overtime. Who scored Notre Dame’s final three baskets? 

Goodwin on a drive to tie it.

Hubb for 3 and the lead off a ridiculous drive and kick from Wesley.

Then Laszewski, who hadn’t made a basket all night, made his only one from 3 to push the Irish lead to six. 

“I’m really proud of those three guys,” Brey said. “They traveled a long journey to want to be good, want to be special. They kind of deserve what they’re getting.” 

Notre Dame had to hold on for its collective life at the end, but who cares? Given where the Irish have been the previous four seasons, don’t dwell on that. Dwell on the program’s first overtime league road win since New Year’s Eve 2016. Dwell on the five-game win streak. Dwell on winning six of the last seven. 

Dwell on how good it has to feel after how badly everyone felt last year and the previous year and the year before that. 

“There’s a neat vibe about this group now,” Brey said. “They feel they’re going to figure it out. The mental part of it is 80 percent of it.” 

The other 20 percent seemingly is getting to that 80. Georgia Tech isn’t very good, but Notre Dame wasn’t very good to start Saturday. It’s almost like this team is at its best when it’s down. Determination suddenly kicks in. So does the drama. 

Notre Dame guard Prentiss Hubb (3) gestures after defeating Georgia Tech in overtime of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

“We want to sell tickets (and) we’re all about ratings,” Brey joked. “I just have a feeling all our games are going to be like this. 

“So far, we’ve come out on the right side of them.” 

Right side of the league games, and the right side of karma, something Brey touched on in his post-game Zoom. Mainly, about how it finally might swing back in the right direction of his program. It started to swing the other way — the bad way — shortly after Notre Dame won the 2017 Maui Invitational and rocketed to No. 5 in the Associated Press poll. 

Notre Dame played at Michigan State the following week and got boat-raced in Breslin Center. Power forward Bonzie Colson then started feeling pain in a left foot that would break twice in four months. Guard Matt Farrell, the team's heart, would severely roll his ankle early in league play. The losing and uncertainty mounted. Next season, more losing, more injuries, more bad mojo. 

The program’s never been the same. 

It’s been a long, frustrating climb back. That karma, Brey often counseled his club, just wasn’t going to be handed back to them. The Irish had to go and earn it. Take their lumps. Learn their lessons. Do some tough stuff. 

Throughout these last four years, Brey kept preaching to his guys that it was going to turn. Work for it. Wait for it. It’s one big reason why he just didn’t walk away after 2019 or 2020 or 2021 when many wondered if he would. Maybe even should. 

Notre Dame has its longest league win streak since 2019-20. It’s the first time the Irish have started 3-1 since 2017-18, the year everything started to fall apart. The program’s not back, but it finally feels on that track. 

“This group has been really determined to figure out a way to win,” Brey said. 

It’s the second week of January. College football sseason is about to fade in the rearview mirror. College basketball season is cranking up. It’s cold and snowy in South Bend. There's some sort of weather advisory every two or three days. Notre Dame is in the top three of the ACC standings and again talking of dreaming big dreams. 

Feels like old times. Welcome back. It's been too long. 

NOTRE DAME 72, GEORGIA TECH 68 

At McCamish Pavilion, Atlanta 

NOTRE DAME (72): Laszewski 1-2 0-2 3, Goodwin 6-18 2-2 14, Hubb 4-10 0-1 10, Ryan 3-5 0-0 7, Wesley 9-21 1-1 22, Atkinson 8-9 0-0 16, Wertz 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 31-66 3-6 72. 

GEORGIA TECH (68): Meka 0-1 0-0 0, K.Moore 3-9 2-3 8, Devoe 8-15 3-3 20, Sturdivant 3-8 2-2 10, Usher 7-17 0-0 16, Coleman 1-5 3-4 6, Maxwell 2-6 0-0 4, Smith 1-3 0-0 2, Kelly 1-3 0-0 2, Gigiberia 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-67 10-12 68. 

Halftime: Georgia Tech 35-29. 3-Point Goals: Notre Dame 7-23 (Wesley 3-7, Hubb 2-6, Laszewski 1-2, Ryan 1-2, Wertz 0-1, Goodwin 0-5), Georgia Tech 6-27 (Sturdivant 2-4, Usher 2-7, Coleman 1-5, Devoe 1-6, Kelly 0-1, Maxwell 0-2, K.Moore 0-2). Rebounds: Notre Dame 34 (Laszewski 9), Georgia Tech 37 (Usher 14). Assists: Notre Dame 19 (Hubb 9), Georgia Tech 15 (Usher 6). Total Fouls: Notre Dame 14, Georgia Tech 12. A5,813 (8,600). 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI