Men's Basketball: Irish sweep ACC road swing with big effort at North Carolina State

Tom Noie
ND Insider

Anytime any Notre Dame men’s basketball team of today or tomorrow does anything to draw any comparison to the 2014-15 outfit that set the program afire, it’s a good day. 

Trey Wertz delivered a big game for Notre Dame against North Carolina State.

Saturday was exactly that for the Irish, who just keep going out on the road in Atlantic Coast Conference play and coming home with wins following a 69-57 victory over North Carolina State at PNC Arena. 

The win helped Notre Dame (16-7 overall) match its best ACC record after 12 games (9-3), accomplished first and only by that 2014-15 team. Remember those guys? 

That’s some select company. Some elite company. The Irish are there after another “road dawg” effort. 

“We’re a confident group, especially on the road,” said coach Mike Brey, asked exactly one question in the post-game presser. “We’ve got a chance. A lot of work to do, but we’ve done a lot of work already. We’ve put a lot of money in the bank.” 

Notre Dame has cashed in of late after having won six of its last seven and 12 of 14 dating back to Dec. 20. 

Up by as many as 17 in the first half, Notre Dame trailed for the first time early in the second after it allowed a 10-0 run, fueled by five quick points from Cam Hayes. Notre Dame answered with seven unanswered, including two buckets from Blake Wesley. His second gave the Irish a 44-40 lead with 12:43 remaining. 

“We really recovered well,” Brey said. 

Notre Dame found firm footing after the North Carolina State spurt by going to a zone defense. Brey usually dusts that off early in the game, sometimes going to it as early as the third offensive possession by the opponent. On Saturday, he kept the 2/3 in his hip pocket, and didn’t deploy it until the Wolfpack proved tough to cover in the open court. North Carolina State got to its spots, got to the basket and got going against the Notre Dame man. 

So the man defense was out, the zone was in and whoa, boy, did it work. It befuddled the Wolfpack, forcing them into quick shots, bad shots, tough shots. Notre Dame held State to 33.3 percent from the floor, 18.2 percent from 3 in the second half. 

The zone won the Irish the game. 

You read that right. 

The zone WON the Irish a game. A road game. Notre Dame was going to be better defensively this season under the tutelage of associate head coach Anthony Solomon, but few expected Notre Dame to be this better. Holding North Carolina State to its shooting percentages – 29.9 and 29.2 from 3 for the game – and not letting the Wolfpack gash the Irish off the dribble. That’s defensive stuff we haven’t seen from these guys. 

We saw it Saturday. Saw it after Brey and his staff huddled at halftime, The first half was playground hoops at its best – up and down, drives to the basket. Dunks. Movement. Brey knew that going with a shorter bench, Notre Dame would have to grind it more. 

That meant a heavy helping of zone. 

“We adjusted to that well,” Brey said. “They want to run. They don’t want to play slow.” 

They want to win more, so slow it was. 

Slow because the Irish operated with a rotation that went only six deep much of the game after Nate Laszewski left five minutes in with a right leg injury. Brey said it’s “just a bruise” for Laszewski, who could be back next week. 

Without him, many (and you know who you are) figured we’d see Matt Zona or Tony Sanders or J.R. Konieczny or somebody off the back end of the bench in the second half. 

Nope. 

Nope. 

Nope. 

Brey rode that six-man rotation to a fifth league road win, most in the ACC. He’s stayed true to his promise that the main guys are going to play. On Saturday, even one main guy down, the main guys played. 

Feb 2, 2022; Coral Gables, Florida, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Paul Atkinson Jr. (20) dunks the ball against the Miami Hurricanes during the first half at Watsco Center. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

This all means nothing – for now 

in the game, the ACC Network posted a graphic from ESPN’s resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi, who said that the Irish were among his last four teams in on his latest field of 68, but ONLY if they won Saturday. 

Wait, what? Really? Who cares what anybody and any bracket thinks on Feb. 5? There’s so much left to be decided. So, if Notre Dame lost Saturday, Selection Sunday next month wouldn’t mean anything? Not quite. 

Anything to drum up interest. Brackets and bubbles and anything else tournament-related is just noise right now. Don’t listen to it Tune it out. Just keep playing and just keep winning and it won’t really much matter. 

Like in 2014-15. 

More parallels from 2014-15, the year that Notre Dame won the ACC tournament and advanced to within a Jerian Grant prayer of a corner jumper in traffic of getting to its first Final Four since 1978. Playing at North Carolina State that season was a magical moment. Notre Dame was in Raleigh that year on a Sunday night, back when the conference had a prime-time television slot. Kind of the only game in town – or in the ACC – kind of a setup. 

The Irish trailed the Wolfpack that night by 18 in the first half, and by 12 at intermission. They were done. Cooked. Headed home with yet another loss in the Triangle. Notre Dame then barged back in the second half and tied it on a V.J. Beachem bucket with 1.8 seconds remaining in regulation. The Irish won in overtime. A couple league losses soon followed, but that Sunday night at PNC was a clear indication that Notre Dame team was for real. 

Heading into Saturday, the last time Notre Dame won at North Carolina State was also a high mark. In 2017, Beachem busted loose for 27 for the then-No. 25 Irish. After the 81-77 win – on what was a 76-degree mid-February afternoon – Brey proclaimed that his guys were all but a lock to get back yet another year to the NCAA tournament following league win No. 9 of what would be 12 that season. 

They were. They did. 

Haven’t been back since. 

Notre Dame’s visit to Raleigh on Saturday capped a stretch of three games in seven days, and five in 11. It was the second time North Carolina State and Notre Dame met in 11 days. The Irish were coming off Wednesday’s win at then-first place Miami (Fla). The game, where the Irish led nearly start to finish (33:51), earned them a rare off day in South Florida. Notre Dame stayed out on the road after Wednesday, and Brey promised his guys wouldn’t visit a gym in any way, shape or form on Thursday. The Irish traveled Friday to Raleigh, where a light practice at PNC was on tap. 

Notre Dame’s been away from home and on the road a lot of late. 

Saturday was league road game No. 7, which means that one weekend of February down, the Irish have only three road games remaining – at Clemson, at Wake Forest and at Florida State. It’s a top-heavy home slate the rest of the way for Notre Dame, which continues Wednesday against repeat opponent Louisville, which still can’t figure out which way is up. 

Notre Dame is pointed in that direction. 

► NOTRE DAME 69, NC STATE 57

At PNC Arena, Raleigh, N.C.

NOTRE DAME (69): Atkinson 5-10 5-7 15, Laszewski 0-0 0-0 0, Goodwin 5-10 2-2 12, Hubb 5-10 0-0 13, Wesley 7-13 0-0 14, Ryan 1-2 0-0 3, Wertz 4-6 2-2 12. Totals 27-51 9-11 69.

NC STATE (57): Gibson 0-1 0-0 0, Hellems 0-6 0-0 0, Morsell 4-14 0-0 11, Seabron 5-16 4-6 14, Smith 6-12 4-4 19, Hayes 5-13 0-0 11, Dowuona 0-0 2-4 2, Allen 0-5 0-0 0, Pass 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-67 10-14 57.

Halftime: Notre Dame 33-28. 3-Point Goals: Notre Dame 6-17 (Hubb 3-6, Wertz 2-3, Ryan 1-2, Wesley 0-2, Goodwin 0-4), NC State 7-24 (Smith 3-6, Morsell 3-8, Hayes 1-5, Seabron 0-1, Allen 0-2, Hellems 0-2). Rebounds: Notre Dame 37 (Atkinson, Goodwin 10), NC State 28 (Seabron 9). Assists: Notre Dame 12 (Hubb 4), NC State 7 (Seabron 3). Total Fouls: Notre Dame 13, NC State 13.

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