Sluggish Irish limp across Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season finish line

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune
Junior power forward Matt Zona was one of the few bright spots for Notre Dame in Saturday's loss at Clemson.

Back when so much promise/potential permeated the plans. the Notre Dame men’s basketball team believed in the fall that it had everything necessary to make a run at history somewhere this winter/spring. 

Maybe win the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season for the first time. Maybe get to the Final Four for a second time. What exactly could/would the Irish do? How good could/would they be? A confident/veteran group believed anything was possible, and a run at the program record books certainly was within reach. 

Late Saturday, in the final conference game to tip in a 20-game league season, Notre Dame made program history, all right. But all the wrong kinds of it. 

Looking to build off a victory over a ranked league team earlier in the week, Notre Dame simply stepped into the wrong place at the wrong time – in the low country of South Carolina - for Clemson’s Senior Night and its continued push toward a possible NCAA Tournament berth. One team wanted this one. The other team needed this one.

The Irish fell into a deep hole early, one that kept cratering, and never led in the season’s most lopsided loss, 87-64, at Littlejohn Coliseum. Quick gamers/columns/think pieces from this one could’ve been cranked out at halftime (this one was). Just fill in the final score and be done with it. Be done with this miserable regular season. There was little worth watching over the final 20 minutes. Except maybe to see how deep the Irish deficit would get. Thirty? 

It hit 27 and got away from the Irish way earlier. You’d look up for a second and then be startled to hear ACC Network play-by-play voice Wes Durham exclaim … “(Matt) Zona throws in a 3!” 

It was that kind of night, a good one for Zona, the seldom-used Irish power forward who scored a career high 10 points. Want a bright spot for the Irish? There he is. 

The loss dropped Notre Dame to 11-20 overall, marking the first time since 1990-91 that the program has lost at least 20 games. The Irish finish 3-17 in league play, tying the school mark for fewest league wins and setting it for most league losses, 12 months after they had won a program best 15 league games. 

Along the way in a game it trailed by as many as 22 points in the first half (its largest road deficit to date) and by 19 at halftime, Notre Dame also became the first Irish team in the modern era to stagger through an entire season without at least one road win. 

It never got one. Anywhere. Against anyone. 

Notre Dame went 0-4 in North Carolina this winter. It went 0-1 in South Carolina. It lost in Atlanta. It lost in Boston. It lost in Central New York and it lost in Virginia. Lost too for good measure in Tallahassee. Saturday’s setback cemented Notre Dame’s first winless season on the road in league play – in any conference. It never happened in the Big East, not even when the Irish were laboring to form any kind of identity in those early days. It had never happened the previous nine seasons as a member of the ACC. 

The Irish always got at least one. Somewhere. This season? Nowhere. When Notre Dame closed out the campaign with its 10th league road loss, it marked the first time since 1921-22 (who remembers that season?) that Notre Dame didn’t win at least one game on the road. 

That’s 101 seasons. One hundred and one years. 

In that 1921-22 season, Notre Dame was led by Walter Halas, who coached baseball, basketball and football during his days on campus. If the surname sounds familiar, his brother, George, basically helped found the National Football League and professional football in Chicago. The Halas/McCaskey family still owns the Bears. Those Halas-coached Irish went 0-9 on the road in '21-'22. They lost in such snake pits as Greencastle, Indiana and Champaign, Illinois. Lost in Omaha. Lost in Crawfordsville, Indiana (no college team walks out of Wabash with a win!) and Kalamazoo, Michigan. 

No Irish team had been as awful away from home since that outfit. Until Saturday. Last season’s core went 6-4 in league play away from home. Imagine if these Irish had duplicated that this season. They never got close, yet another reason why this season has been this season. 

This one was going to be a tough get under even the most normal of circumstances. The way the Irish finally were able to get to South Carolina made it that much more difficult. Winter weather prohibited Notre Dame from getting out of Northern Indiana on Friday afternoon/evening, which forced a rare day of game travel. The Irish traveling party finally landed in Greenville/Spartanburg around 10:30 Saturday morning, and got to Littlejohn for a shoot-around at 1 p.m. 

Notre Dame looked like it played with heavy legs in the first half. Shots that normally fall, didn’t fall. The Irish were a step or two or three slow on defense. It was hard to rebound. It was hard to move up and down the floor. It was hard to compete. 

Everyone looked and moved tired. Head coach Mike Brey even looked it when cameras caught him on the bench halfway through the second half and the Irish still down 20.

Next up for No. 14 seed Notre Dame is a first-round ACC tournament game against No. 11 Virginia Tech on Tuesday in Greensboro, North Carolina. The one team that the Irish probably didn’t want to see, have no business doing business with, for myriad reasons, it will see. 

We’re now down to maybe only one more game to go – win it or go home. For good. For the super seniors. For the head coach. For everybody. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.


NOTRE DAME (64): Laszewski 4-9 3-6 12, Lubin 1-5 0-0 2, Goodwin 1-5 0-0 3, Ryan 7-18 3-3 19, Wertz 2-7 2-2 7, Hammond 3-10 0-0 9, Zona 3-6 2-2 10, Campbell 0-0 1-3 1, Carmody 0-0 1-2 1, Sanders 0-0 0-0 0, Wade 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 21-61 12-18 64. 

CLEMSON (87): Schieffelin 7-7 1-2 16, Tyson 5-11 2-4 16, Hall 5-13 5-5 15, Galloway 5-8 0-0 13, C.Hunter 5-11 0-0 14, Hemenway 1-1 0-0 3, Middlebrooks 1-2 3-4 5, Godfrey 0-2 0-0 0, D.Hunter 0-0 0-0 0, Wiggins 1-3 0-0 2, Beadle 0-1 0-0 0, Foster 0-0 0-0 0, Kelly 0-0 0-0 0, J.Nauseef 0-1 1-2 1, D.Nauseef 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 31-61 12-17 87. 

Halftime: Clemson 48-29. 3-Point Goals: Notre Dame 10-29 (Hammond 3-6, Zona 2-3, Ryan 2-10, Goodwin 1-3, Wertz 1-3, Laszewski 1-4), Clemson 13-29 (C. Hunter 4-8, Tyson 4-10, Galloway 3-5, Hemenway 1-1, Schieffelin 1-1, Hall 0-1, J. Nauseef 0-1, Wiggins 0-2). Rebounds: Notre Dame 27 (Laszewski 9), Clemson 44 (Tyson 13). Assists: Notre Dame 13 (Wertz 4), Clemson 15 (C. Hunter 7). Total Fouls: Notre Dame 11, Clemson 17.