Engel: Notre Dame Basketball Regained Some Attention, Intrigue With Dominant Road Victory Over Pitt
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Engel: Notre Dame Regained Some Attention, Intrigue With Dominant Victory

Be honest, Notre Dame fans.

A 26-point boat race of Pitt on the road wasn’t in your expected range of outcomes for the Irish’s Saturday night trip to Petersen Events Center.

Maybe you allowed yourself to consider the idea of a competitive game or a narrow win, but for plenty of vocal folks, a discouraging loss to Virginia Tech four days earlier was the final line in this season’s obituary. A stumped Mike Brey and a team seemingly running in marshland dried up the last bit of hope.

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Mike Brey and Notre Dame are 3-1 in their last four games after beating Pitt 84-58 on Saturday.
Mike Brey and Notre Dame are 3-1 in their last four games after beating Pitt 84-58 on Saturday. (ACC)

In response, though, the Irish hammered on the accelerator until they shot out of the mud. A case study in extremes. Defeating Pitt 84-58 was enough to calm the pessimism and even get minds wondering.

Could a resurrection from 2-6 in the ACC be coming for the second straight year? One game isn’t a definitive answer, but to reach a point where that question isn’t met with laughter four days after putting out a season-low 51 points is a victory in itself.

“This has been a cool group of kids,” Brey said. “They’re not too high when they win, not jumping off buildings when they lose. They know who they are. We came here ready to go for it.”

Notre Dame (6-9, 3-6 ACC) is 3-1 in its last four games, with two straight roads wins, and a favorable one up next at home against lowly Wake Forest on Tuesday (5 p.m. ET, ACCN). It has three games left against teams lower in the standings. There’s also a trip to enigmatic Syracuse, a home game with backsliding Clemson and an end-of-season meeting with middling N.C. State.

All winnable, especially in light of Saturday’s destruction of the Panthers and Virginia Tech’s 65-51 handling of Virginia, a reminder Notre Dame isn’t alone in struggling to crack the Hokies’ defense. That defeat doesn’t inspire much confidence the Irish can topple top-25 foes Florida State and Louisville later this year, but Saturday’s win was a boost for hopes of beating the teams just above Notre Dame’s spot in the standings.

Since the 2018-19 season, the Irish have defeated only four ACC teams (seven total games) finished tied or above them in the final standings. Two defeats of Georgia Tech last year were the only instances of beating a team that ended with a winning conference record.

Pitt is now one game ahead of Notre Dame and has lost three straight, but ACC Player of the Year candidate Justin Champagnie should help cushion any fall in this league full of above-average teams but devoid of title contenders. Regardless, it’s a win Notre Dame needed to have if it was serious about threatening for a .500 finish. After beating Miami on Jan. 24, Brey floated that as a goal for the season. The Irish have 10 scheduled games left to get there.

“We’re not satisfied with where we’re at right now,” guard Dane Goodwin said. “We have a lot of games to play and some key games coming up. Great to get this one, but we’re looking forward.”

Intent on taking Saturday’s key themes with them, though. Like engaged defense, ball security, scoring balance and building on a big early lead instead of clinging to it. The first one is the biggest change. Notre Dame has held four straight opponents to 1.0 or fewer points per possession and three in a row under 0.9.

There’s no new identity. The Irish simply have intensity and passion that was absent early on. They won’t be confused with the league’s best defensive teams, but are separating themselves from the worst. Missed assignments and flat-footed possessions have decreased.

“Our defensive stances have come a long way,” Brey said. “Could we get that into our flow offensively from there and could we start a second half better? We kind of put it all together.”

The end product looked like this: Notre Dame averaged 1.27 points per possession, made 13 of its 24 three-pointer attempts and posted 20 assists against seven turnovers. A 12-point halftime ballooned to 19 barely two minutes into the second half. The Irish were effective in creating open shots. They made them. They made the right plays. And several important players delivered their best.

“It’s really fun,” forward Juwan Durham said. “It’s a lot easier too.”

Guard Trey Wertz, operating in an increased on-ball role, tied a season-high with five assists. He shifted Prentiss Hubb off the ball at times, allowing Hubb to connect on a trio of assisted three-pointers instead of needing to create his own attempts from deep. Guard Cormac Ryan, previously 8-for-33 from behind the arc in ACC play, was 5-of-6.

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“When we can come down the floor when your defense isn’t set, just read the defense and play basketball with good passers and shooters, it’s fun to watch,” Brey said.

And makes one wonder how much of the 3-8 start to the season can be placed on a grueling schedule rather than a team destined for a lost season capable of losing to anyone. Those games rightfully take up oxygen when discussing this season and this program – which, after all, is still staring at a .500 finish as the best-case scenario. That big picture isn’t lost or adjusted.

Notre Dame is, though, capable of surprise and reminders that its worst case isn’t as bad as imagined. Saturday was a reminder the Irish can pack a punch, a notice they land it against a team above them and an expectation they can deliver a haymaker again. Perhaps at surging Georgia Tech on Feb. 6. Or at talented-but-wayward Duke three days later.

“Things could get interesting like they did last year,” Brey said, “When we came off 2-6.”

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