Men's basketball: Notre Dame finds a way to squeeze past Howard on MLK Day
Playing on a day it doesn’t normally play in a place it never has played, Monday was said to be about more than just the game for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.
Until it became about winning one/stealing one against middle-of-the-road Howard, in a snake-pit of a gym in front of a national television audience on a day to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A visit to King’s memorial in Washington the previous afternoon and the special shooting shirts honoring former Black players in the Irish program were terrific touches, but when the ball went up at 2:37 p.m., Monday afternoon, Notre Dame needed something more.
Needed a win.
► More men's basketball:Important that Notre Dame makes rare appearance at HBCU Howard
It took more work than many anticipated, but Notre Dame moved to 11-6 with a 71-68 victory, which wasn't sealed until a Prentiss Hubb driving lay-up with 12.7 seconds remaining. Notre Dame led by 11 with 2:51 left before a 10-0 Howard run cut it to one Then it was all about survival. About stealing one.
Notre Dame survived. It stole one.
"That was a big-time drive," Brey said of Hubb. "We did some tough stuff when we had to."
That no other Atlantic Coast Conference school dare do what Notre Dame did in playing at an HBCU school, something no other Power Six school had done at Howard since 2010 (Oregon State), was admirable. Brey tried to get other ACC schools to follow Notre Dame’s lead, but nobody did. This was cool, but only if the ACC school beat the HBCU school. If it went the other way, well, that just wouldn’t look good. Any kind of potential NCAA tournament résumé would be a serious gut punch to an Irish program that’s stomached their share.
Nate Laszewski led the Irish with 17 points and 13 rebounds. He played the whole second half and hit a big 3 late to stretch the lead to seven.
"He kind of played with a will to win," Brey said. "There was a confidence about him."
Up by eight early, Notre Dame tumbled into a five-point hold in the opening minutes of the second half. The Irish looked in trouble. Big trouble. They looked slow, disinterested, unsure, uninspired. Brey needed a timeout to stop the bleeding.
Never thought that sentence would be written about this one. Written, it was. Just when it looked like the Irish would never wake up, they did. Notre Dame ripped off a scoring run of 27-10 to take control. Or seemingly so, going up by 12 with 7:53 left.
Brey knew long before tip that this one wasn’t going to be easy. Howard was going to use the same book that other opponents used on Notre Dame (Texas A&M most recently) and press and trap and try to rattle the Irish into turnovers. Getting it frenetic would keep the crowd from wandering out for something else somewhere else before intermission.
It got frenetic, and the Irish were rattled.
Notre Dame looked ready to roll following two Blake Wesley steals and dunks to help put the Irish up eight. That was it. There the ACC team would go, showing the other guys how to play big-boy basketball. But Notre Dame played the rest of the half as if it was on cruise control. Taking care of the ball. Guarding. Competing.
Notre Dame led by one at the break after committing nine turnovers. Two nights earlier down in Blacksburg, Va., in an ACC game against Virginia Tech, Notre Dame committed three turnovers in the entire game.
► Women's basketball:Finding balance, Notre Dame nets biggest win of the season over Tar Heels
Compounding matters, the Irish had only three assists in the first 20 minutes. Too much individual stuff. Too much one-on-one. Too much of guys just thinking they’re going to smoke their guy off the dribble and get to the basket. That’s not Irish basketball. Still Notre Dame led by eight after the first seven minutes that featured seven lead changes.
Instead of making this one look easy, it looked and felt a lot like the time Brey took Notre Dame to Fort Wayne to play an IPFW team that was just getting its collective feet wet in Division I – and nearly lost in 2005 (65-63).
Winning in Washington, no matter the venue, always is good for Notre Dame. Back when Notre Dame was in the Big East, when it traversed the all-important Interstate 95 corridor that became and to an extent remains a recruiting centerpiece, Washington became THE Notre Dame town.
More than Boston. More than New York or Philadelphia or anywhere in Jersey and other points east that the team traveled in those days, Washington always was really good to Notre Dame. Like when it was playing in the Capital One Arena in the downtown area of the city against Georgetown. Like that time one year when it was 85 degrees on a gameday. In January. Each time Notre Dame won, and it won a lot, fans in the stands would chant “Let’s Go, Irish!” so much so that you thought you were back at Purcell Pavilion. It got that loud. It was that one-sided.
There was one stretch when Notre Dame won in four straight appearances at Capital One. It was a home away from home, as was that city.
Washington’s been good to Notre Dame and Notre Dame has been anxious to get back. Prior to Monday, it hadn’t won in Washington since an ACC tournament quarterfinal win over Duke – in overtime, at Capital One – in 2016. That was a day Notre Dame roared back after being down by 16 in the second half and again, the arena turned into Purcell East.
Notre Dame has longed to get back to the city more often, and looked like it had a home-and-home with Georgetown set before Hoyas coach Patrick Ewing pulled the plug on that one.
Monday at Howard, it was, on a special day, but also kind of a weird one when you looked at the Howard bench. There next to head coach Kenny Blakeney, was Howard associate head coach Rod Balanis, who spent the previous 21 years at Notre Dame with Brey in some capacity.
Balanis started as an ops guy when Brey arrived in South Bend. He then became an assistant coach, then, the last couple years, the associate head coach. He was in charge of recruiting. He handled scheduling. Nobody knew more about Irish basketball – the games, the players, the moments – than Balanis. He was a walking encyclopedia of Notre Dame basketball knowledge.
► Power rankings:Duke climbs, Notre Dame falls in latest league power rankings
Balanis was pushed back to the ops role in the offseason, a role he just didn’t want. He still wanted to coach, to teach, to be on the bench in the heat of a basketball battle. That wasn’t going to happen at Notre Dame, so he landed at Howard, with one of his best friends in the business in Blakeney.
He should’ve been on the other bench. With Brey. With guys he helped recruit. With Notre Dame.
Balanis was all business Monday, trying to help the Bison win a game. But the Irish took care of theirs, and notched a needed win. In a city that's long felt like home. To Brey. To the Irish.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI