Noie: Notre Dame left singing ACC blues in Blue Heaven
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Down the cinder-block hallway in the arena basement they filed, one silent guy after another silent guy, past a mural highlighting the home team’s 21 Final Four appearances and then by more murals recognizing the championships won.
The national championships. In 2005. In 2009. In 2017. It’s impressive. And imposing.
Into the locker room those visitors from up north went, without words, without emotion, and without an Atlantic Coast Conference victory. Make that five league games for Notre Dame, and five league losses following its most lopsided, 81-64, in front of 21,750 Saturday at the Dean Smith Center.
Playing North Carolina isn’t just about playing against a team. It’s not just about playing against guys like power forward Armando Bacot (21 points and 13 rebounds, which felt more like 30 and 30) and guards R.J. Davis (13 points, five rebounds, five assists) and Caleb Love (18 points) swingman Leaky Black (a little of everything), all of whom chose to come back to school to chase the school’s seventh national championship.
“They’ve got guys; they made plays,” said Irish super senior Dane Goodwin. “I don’t know. It’s one of those things (where) you’ve got to overcome things. You’ve got to play through it. We know we’re at a disadvantage with the home crowd but we’ve got to come together as a team and play better in these games.”
When you play North Carolina, especially when you play at North Carolina, it’s about playing a program. It’s college basketball royalty. It’s Michael Jordan on the video board and Roy WIlliams in the stands — and his name on the court. It’s a history that so few teams can match. For Notre Dame, it’s kind of like what opponents feel when they go to South Bend — to play football.
“I wouldn’t say difficult; it’s a challenge no matter what,” said Irish super senior Nate Laszewski. “I think it’s what you look for as a player.”
There’s so much tradition of excellence that it’s hard to win here. Impossible. Notre Dame has done it once, during its magical 32-6 run to the Elite Eight in 2015. Remember that year? It was eight years ago March and about 90 miles west along Interstate 40 that Notre Dame last beat North Carolina in North Carolina.
The Irish won a league tournament championship that night down Greensboro way. It might be more than eight years before Notre Dame again gets the best of North Carolina on Tobacco Road. On Saturday, the visitors had to play close to a perfect game as possible just to have a chance to get the game to the second half. That meant no empty possessions. No missed layups. No turnovers. No straying from the script.
Notre Dame did too much of that too early to have a chance. Missed layups. Turnovers. Empty possessions. Runouts for the Tar Heels. Dunks. Layups. Rebound buckets. Everything you can’t allow.
Killers, Irish coach Mike Brey said of those possessions.
All of it opened the door to a 16-3 Carolina run that really kind of marked the beginning of the end. There still was a lot of game to be played, and Notre Dame would get back within seven in the second half, but after that quick spurt, this one was effectively over.
“We tried and fought and scratched a little bit,” Brey said. “Do they have some athletic ability that just comes downhill on you big-time. It is so hard to deal with.”
A lot of years, Notre Dame can’t deal with it. This year, it really can’t deal with it. Any of it. All of it.
Hey, some fight in these Irish
That’s not to say that Notre Dame no-showed in the second half. It showed some of the fight that’s needed in ACC play. Some push back when you’re getting pushed around. We haven’t seen that from this team, who collectively has seemed resigned to accept its non-fight fate the previous four league games.
In each, Notre Dame had chances in the second half to make a play or two to swing momentum and get that elusive league win. Had the chance against Syracuse and at Florida State. Home to Miami and earlier in the week at Boston College. Notre Dame didn’t make the plays needed to close any of those out, and didn’t make many plays to swing this one.
That’s OK. That’s why the previous four losses stung so. You had to get a couple of those, because you weren’t getting this one. You just weren’t. Win in that building? This team? No way.
The Irish showed fight. Some nasty. Dirty? Debatable after fifth-year guard Cormac Ryan challenged Puff Johnson’s clear path to the basket. Ryan could’ve eased up, could’ve let Johnson go in uncontested, but didn’t.
Ryan challenged Johnson’s bucket before the two fell into photographers. A skirmish followed. So did a Ryan foot to Johnson. Really, it was nothing. Ryan was tagged with a Flagrant 2 foul. Still seven minutes remained, and there was Ryan, in that same hallway highlighting the Carolina tradition, bent over and breathing hard, trying to make sense of the sequence that saw him earn an ejection.
Brey didn’t mind any of it. It let him know that his guys still care. Still want to fight and turn this record (8-8 overall; 0-5 ACC) into something respectable, even after losing for the third straight game, sixth of the last seven and seventh time in the last nine.
“I love the fact that we had a little bit of a confrontation,” Brey said. “That was kind of good. We probably need some of that.”
Freshman power forward Dom Campbell brought a little added/needed energy/effort to the equation. Getting a chance with fellow freshman Ven-Allen Lubin out for at least a week with an ankle injury, Campbell played almost as many minutes (seven) as he had fouls (five). He was the object of the arena’s ire, and again, that’s not all that bad.
It’s OK for someone Irish to wear the black hat. To be the villain. For this team, that’s good. They could afford to run with that rep every now and then. The book’s out on Notre Dame — a bunch of nice guys who don’t have any league wins. You can beat ‘em. You can push ‘em around. Some physicality, some toughness, some up-yours swagger could help turn this.
Couldn’t hurt, right?
“We’re just looking for anything right now,” said Goodwin, who set the program record Saturday with career game No. 142. “Whatever we can find in a positive way is going to help us and we’ll roll with it.”
Campbell’s inclusion in the rotation came on the heels (sorry) of Brey switching up the starting lineup for the first time this season. Out went super senior (and North Carolina native) Trey Wertz. In stepped super senior Marcus Hammond for his first-ever game in this atmosphere. Hammond played barely two minutes before Wertz checked in.
“He was pretty good,” Brey said of Hammond who had seven points and three assists. “We’re throwing stuff up on the wall now, man.”
Maybe it’s more of Campbell moving forward. Maybe it’s more of Hammond in the starting lineup. Maybe there’s another move that still could be made. Brey’s all ears. Got a suggestion? A quick post-game presser complete, Brey stayed seated in the arena interview room for an extra moment. Then two. Stepping back out into the hallway, meant stepping past all those murals celebrating all that success.
Celebrating everything that his program isn’t. That’s just the way it’s always been. Nothing’s changing that. Ever.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.
∎ NORTH CAROLINA 81, NOTRE DAME 64
NOTRE DAME (64): Laszewski 7-10 2-3 17, Goodwin 5-10 0-0 10, Hammond 2-8 1-4 7, Ryan 3-12 0-0 8, Starling 4-10 1-3 10, Wertz 2-6 2-2 7, Campbell 1-3 1-2 3, Zona 1-1 0-0 2, Carmody 0-0 0-0 0, Sanders 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-60 7-14 64.
NORTH CAROLINA (81): Black 2-7 0-0 4, Bacot 9-17 3-7 21, Davis 5-11 1-2 13, Love 6-16 3-3 18, Trimble 1-2 1-4 3, Johnson 4-5 1-1 11, Dunn 2-2 2-2 7, Washington 1-2 0-0 2, McKoy 0-1 0-0 0, Nickel 1-2 0-0 2, Styles 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 31-65 11-19 81.
Halftime: North Carolina 41-28. 3-Point Goals: Notre Dame 7-18 (Hammond 2-4, Ryan 2-5, Laszewski 1-1, Wertz 1-3, Starling 1-4, Goodwin 0-1), North Carolina 8-19 (Love 3-6, Johnson 2-3, Davis 2-4, Dunn 1-1, McKoy 0-1, Nickel 0-1, Trimble 0-1, Black 0-2). Fouled Out: Campbell. Rebounds: Notre Dame 29 (Laszewski 8), North Carolina 42 (Bacot 13). Assists: Notre Dame 11 (Hammond, Starling 3), North Carolina 19 (Davis 5). Total Fouls: Notre Dame 16, North Carolina 15. A: 21,750 (21,750).