In Toppling No. 11 Florida State, Notre Dame Lifts A Big Weight Off Itself
This one was louder than its Wednesday opposition, permeating into every nook and cranny of Purcell Pavilion as the signal to not foul and let the clock run out came from the visitor’s bench.
It came from a collection of about 20 students. The cheerleaders didn’t need to drum up a quick attempt to drown this one out.
“We love Brey,” traveled down from Section 107 and 108 as final seconds evaporated on Notre Dame’s 83-73 win over No. 11 Florida State on Saturday, the last regular-season game of 2020-21.
What a 72-hour reversal and a sharp U-turn.
Notre Dame finally hit the brakes on the bad momentum that had hijacked the stretch run of this season and brought up big-picture questions about where this thing is going as Mike Brey wraps up his 21st season in charge. It all boiled over in a couple “Fire Brey” chants after a lethargic Wednesday loss to N.C. State – their fourth straight – in which the Irish led for just 19 seconds and appeared to be playing out the string.
In recent weeks, Notre Dame’s final regular-season games and the ACC tournament became a matter of pride. As in, displaying it. Brey doesn’t have to remind his team when they get punked. There was, though, reason to question if pride would show up. Shouldn’t a 20-point blown lead at Syracuse and allowing 94 points to last-place Boston College have evoked some channeled anger?
The unfriendly chant and N.C. State defeat apparently was. Better now than not at all.
“Wednesday night, I was antsy, frustrated, complaining a lot,” fifth-year senior forward Nik Djogo said. “As a leader on this team and a guy who prides himself on putting the team first, I was embarrassed with how I was treating things.
“We’ve lost a lot of games we shouldn’t lose, and we were all pretty pissed about stuff that was going on outside the program.”
Not hard to understand what he’s referencing. Because it wasn’t hard to hear.
Djogo, a team captain, took the responsibility of ignite some sparks.
“I first sent coach Brey a text telling him I have his back with everything going on and we were going to come out fighting on Saturday,” Djogo said. “Then I texted the guys saying the team performance I gave Wednesday wasn’t something they expect out of me and I’d change the way I approached the game Saturday. I ended up doing that.”
Earning the start on Senior Day, Djogo backed up his promise right away. First, by sprinting down the floor to free himself for a pass and transition layup attempt that drew a foul. Then, with a backcut and dunk. Then, he drifted to the corner to stay in teammate Trey Wertz’s passing vision and hit a three-pointer. Following that, he caught a pass in the lane, met 7-2 Seminoles center Tanor Ngom and drew contact.
It adds up to eight points in the game’s first 3:39. With his outburst as the catalyst, Notre Dame kept pouring it on and led by as many as 20 in the first half. The Irish led for all but 29 seconds in the game. A somnambulant team that looked like it had been stuffed in a straitjacket for two weeks was loose and juiced.
“A lot of times this season when we’ve been down in the dumps, we’ve said a bunch of things but haven’t actually done it on the court,” Djogo said. “All the stuff I said on Wednesday wouldn’t mean much if we went out and did the same thing.”
What do those differences look like? A willingness to defend, get in front on drives and dive for the ball when it was on the floor, for starters.
Examples were everywhere. Guard Trey Wertz stepping in front of Florida State 260-pound sledgehammer RaiQuan Gray on a drive and forcing him to pull up for a jumper. Forward Nate Laszewski drawing two charges on Gray.
There’s more. Guard Cormac Ryan sprinting back after committing a turnover and closing out hard on Seminoles leading scorer M.J. Walker to force him into a mid-range jumper that he missed. Ryan stealing an inbound pass. Guard Dane Goodwin hitting the deck to grab a loose ball force a tie-up that allowed Notre Dame to hit the game-sealing free throws. Out-rebounding a team of superior athletes.
And when Florida State roared back and turned up the ball pressure, Notre Dame weathered it. The Irish hung onto the ball and made timely shots instead of folding and authoring another chapter in their book of late collapses.
“We wanted to prove something about ourselves and others that we play a certain way,” Goodwin said. “One game is not going to define us, but we can step up and make the change."
Added Brey: “We had some edge about us.”
It had been missing for too long. It was missing in games against ranked teams since November 2017 in the Maui Invitational. That was the last time the Irish toppled a top-25 opponent. Not since a February 2017 defeat of Florida State had they done it at home.
The win is, of course, too late to salvage postseason hopes. It’s not an eraser of all woes either. Notre Dame ends the regular season a disappointing 10-14 and 7-11 in the ACC. Without cutting down nets in Greensboro, it’ll miss the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight season. Before this dry spell, Notre Dame had been excluded from it just twice in 11 years.
At the same time, this one is an anvil off the program’s back in multiple ways. Things surely aren’t as claustrophobic for Brey as they felt a few days ago, when end-game questions reached their loudest volume of his tenure. This game was a chance to create some positive vibes and give the masses some tangible evidence this roster – with him in charge – could punch out of its place of residence as an ACC also-ran.
That’s all external, though. The Irish will enjoy some needed good mojo and turn the focus to going as far as they can as the No. 11 seed in the ACC tournament, starting with Wake Forest on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET).
“It’s neat,” Brey said, “to see a group of guys rally and do it.”
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