A lot for the Irish to like in this one, well, except for the final score
How do you take 28 minutes of really good basketball — winning basketball — and junk it over the final 12? Just toss it aside with whatever hope remained in a season void of it?
Ask the Notre Dame men's basketball team, which continues to find new and frustrating and downright deflating ways to lose Atlantic Coast Conference games. On second thought, don't ask the Irish. There are no explanations after this one. Only excuses exist.
So many good numbers dominated the final stats sheet Saturday night in Central New York for Notre Dame. In need of a second straight league win and their first win away from home all season, the Irish did a lot right. Except when it mattered. And where it mattered — on the scoreboard.
Cruising toward a second straight league win and its first on the road since March, Notre Dame watched Syracuse storm back from a 12-point deficit with 12 minutes remaining for a 78-73 victory that dropped the Irish to 9-9 overall, 1-6 in the ACC.
Decidedly average overall and waaaaay below it while sinking faster in a league the Irish planned to win. Just when you think it can't get any worse, it does.
Some of the final numbers — other than the final score — say that Notre Dame should’ve won this game and won it easily. Won it by checking that old core that looks too old with each passing loss over the closing seconds and emptying the bench, allowing guys like Dom Campbell and Robby Carmody and Alex Wade and Matt Zona to get a few minutes of run in the JMA Wireless Dome.
Notre Dame made a season-high 15 3-pointers. It finished with a season-best 21 assists. For much of the night, it was textbook Irish basketball under head coach Mike Brey — swing it, share it, shoot it. Niagara transfer guard Marcus Hammond scored a season-high 18 points. The Irish committed only five turnovers. Man, there was so much to like. From a stats standpoint. From an offensive flow standpoint. From a they’re-going-to-get-this-one standpoint.
In the end, the Irish have only a sixth league loss (they lost five last season) to show for it.
“I feel for our guys,” Brey said. “We were really good. That’s maybe the best zone offense we’ve ever run.”
Eventually, though, you run out of words to describe the continued conference disappointment, the near-misses and the what-coulda-beens. How all of this keeps happening to a group that shouldn’t allow it to happen. Notre Dame had the ball and the chance to win last month at Florida State. Didn’t. Notre Dame was up double digits this month at Boston College and lost. The Irish led Saturday by 12 — their largest lead in league play this season — and still let it get away.
It’s just one of those years with the one team that wasn’t supposed to let this happen. It just keeps happening. This team can’t win close game because deep down, it probably doesn’t truly believe it can close out a close game. Can’t do the tough stuff — get a stop, make a shot, believe.
There's a crisis of confidence that no win — however small — is going to fix. Not later this month. Not next month. Or the one that follows. Maybe in spring, when everything starts anew, so will this program.
Here’s a staggering stat — in league road games at Boston College and at Syracuse, Notre Dame has led for a combined 63:38 out of 80 minutes. It led for 37:19 at Boston College. It led Saturday for 26:19.
It lost both. That’s hard to do. The Irish have made it look easy.
We keep hearing about how this core has seen everything during their careers — wins, losses, tough nights, big moments. But what’s it all mean? Where’s it gotten these Irish except for one game out of the league basement for a second time in five seasons?
Working color commentary on ACC Network, Malcolm Huckaby made mention late Saturday that Brey talked of how his guys — how his old guys — seem to play better, seem to be at their best when backed into a corner. Wait, what?
They may have been earlier in the week when Notre Dame trailed by seven with under four minutes remaining but found a way to figure it out at home in an overtime win over Georgia Tech. How would that comeback propel the Irish through the rest of the week? The rest of the month? Notre Dame didn’t know, but insisted it was eager to find out in the Dome.
Saturday, we found out. It may not get any better this year than those coveted one-game win streaks. Two in a row? Too much to expect from this group.
Earlier in the week, a late-game huddle told you all you needed to know about the Irish and their collective mindset. Graduate guard Cormac Ryan spoke up, spoke loudly, and his teammates seemed to all fall in line.
On Saturday, a late-game huddle told you all you need to know about these Irish. As Brey talked in the closing minutes against Syracuse, five Irish sat stone-faced around him. Nobody said much of anything. Somebody on the perimeter of the circle then chimed in just as the horn sounded to return to the floor, “Let’s win it.”
Instead, Notre Dame gave it away. Success stinks. Check that — this team trying to handle success stinks. Notre Dame did so little — OK, nothing — the final 2:32 to get the win.
Back from that timeout when the huddle looked more doom than determination, Notre Dame promptly turned it over on the inbound pass when a tricky offering from Trey Wertz (super senior) fell off the hands of Nate Laszewski (super senior). Next possession, another late clock situation, saw Wertz offer an airball. Next possession, and with the Irish now down three, saw Dane Goodwin (super senior), unable to convert an open corner 3.
Winning teams come back out of a timeout, inbound the ball and run their offense. They get good shots that aren’t bail-outs at end-of-clock situations. They make shots when shots absolutely must be made.
This team doesn’t.
“We did have some looks there, really good ones,” Brey said. “We didn’t make those the last six or seven minutes.”
Notre Dame made one 3 — from Hammond — the final 12 minutes. In a game of making shots, Notre Dame stopped making them.
That was it. That’s your ball game. That’s your season in a nutshell for these Irish, who have lost all six games (two neutral site games, four league games) away from home this season. It's the first time since 2011-12 that Notre Dame has lost its first six games away from home to start a season, a season that hit January’s midway point Sunday.
A year ago, the Irish were road dawgs, going 6-4 in league play away from home and winning nine times overall away from home. This year? Just dogs.
What cuts deeper after this one was that those old guys from Notre Dame were done in by a bunch of kids. Syracuse made its decisive run — 14-4 to climb back into it — with four freshmen on the floor. Four freshmen who probably don’t know any better against four (five) old guys who have to know better.
“An area that hurts us is when we really have to defend to win a game, and stick our chest in there, at least on the road, we haven’t been able to do that.” Brey said.
And probably never will.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.
∎ SYRACUSE 78, NOTRE DAME 73
NOTRE DAME (73): Laszewski 5-8 1-1 14, Goodwin 6-13 0-0 15, Ryan 1-6 0-0 3, Starling 3-10 0-0 6, Wertz 4-9 0-0 12, Hammond 6-10 2-2 18, Lubin 2-3 1-2 5. Totals 27-59 4-5 73.
SYRACUSE (78): Bell 6-9 0-0 17, Williams 2-4 0-0 5, Edwards 5-9 3-4 13, Girard 2-9 2-2 7, Mintz 3-9 8-10 14, Brown 7-8 1-2 15, Taylor 2-5 0-0 5, Hima 1-1 0-0 2, Torrence 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-54 14-18 78.
Halftime: Notre Dame 40-36. 3-Point Goals: Notre Dame 15-37 (Hammond 4-7, Wertz 4-8, Laszewski 3-5, Goodwin 3-9, Ryan 1-5, Starling 0-3), Syracuse 8-19 (Bell 5-8, Williams 1-1, Taylor 1-2, Girard 1-5, Mintz 0-3). Rebounds: Notre Dame 25 (Laszewski 10), Syracuse 32 (Edwards 15). Assists: Notre Dame 21 (Goodwin 6), Syracuse 21 (Mintz 8). Total Fouls: Notre Dame 19, Syracuse 10. A: 20,666 (35,446).