Notre Dame’s Blown Lead And Loss At Syracuse A Big-Picture Stinger
The door to an interesting March was unlocked, ready to be nudged a bit further open. Not to the point where Notre Dame could kick it all the way down in one day, but set up for the Irish to inch a little closer to something that seemed impossible about seven weeks ago.
Notre Dame went to Syracuse to play in an arena where it had won in both its last two visits, to play a team against whom it had topped 80 points twice last season and to play the first of three Quadrant 1 opportunities in the last five games of the regular season. If the Irish were going to climb onto the tournament bubble, this was one they needed to have and was reasonable to ask them to win.
Twenty minutes in, that appeared to be an inevitability. The Irish pantsed Syracuse and its often-leaky 2-3 zone defense to the tune of 54.5 percent shooting, 15 assists on 18 field goals and 1.39 points per possession. They never trailed and led by as many as 19 in building a 46-32 halftime lead.
A Quadrant 1 win was within grasp. And some 700 miles south, Kentucky was finishing off a dismantling of No. 19 Tennessee to put itself back in the NET top 75 – meaning another Quadrant 1 victory for the Irish. One more good half, and Notre Dame’s Quadrant 1 mark would jump to 3-7 from 1-7, an all-important step in building a tournament résumé worth considering.
But then, Notre Dame sputtered. A minor drought of four straight misses and a turnover turned into a 12-minute stretch with just five points. When it ended, Syracuse had a one-point lead and held on to it for a 75-67 win, slamming Notre Dame’s March door all but shut.
The Irish had stalled out in second halves before, barely hanging on Dec. 12 at Kentucky and letting a 15-point halftime lead slip Feb. 6 at Georgia Tech. This one, though, was particularly deflating because of its big-picture damage and because that uncomfortable script resurfaced – one a rotation comprised of only upperclassmen ought to be rid of by now, 20 games into a season.
“Disappointed for our guys, because I thought we were ready to play and were playing well,” coach Mike Brey said.
Searching for something and anything, Syracuse turned up some pressure, threw full-court traps at Notre Dame and clawed all the way back. The Irish took a 55-35 lead with 16:49 left and scored 12 points the rest of the way. They had seven assists and eight turnovers in the second half. When they did get clean looks, many of them drew rim.
“That’s like the Georgia Tech game,” Brey said. “Full-court pressure changed the whole complexion of the game, and our turnovers hurt us. It’s two games where we were in control and couldn’t finish, even though we had a few more guards on the floor.
“What happens when a team has been hurt by it, there’s a little bit of a mental hurdle with it, a little bit of, ‘Here we go again.’”
Asked why that oh-brother feeling had Superman’s grip on his team, Brey rested his head on his right fist and shook his head.
“You’d have to ask our leadership,” he said. “It’s on their ass to figure out how to bounce back. I told [them] after the Georgia Tech game I don’t have any big rah-rah speeches this time of year. We’ll try and get our guys in better spots against the press, because Louisville will press us. Either you’re tough enough to attack it or you’re not. It’s a great educational experience for young men. Either you’re going to get over the hump, or you’re not.”
Brey, though, is also aware of his own involvement. Could’ve put them in better position to handle a defense everyone wearing blue and gold in the Carrier Dome assumed was coming, he said. Could’ve pushed some other buttons. Could’ve done something different here or there since late November in a season where Notre Dame is now 9-11 and 6-8 in the ACC.
“I’m not pointing fingers,” Brey said. “I always accept responsibility. I don’t think we had the right guy taking the ball out of bounds a couple times. [Center] Juwan [Durham] took it out, [Guard] Dane [Goodwin] was supposed to take it out. That’s really on me. Breakdown in communication on that, because we knew the press was coming. We also could be strong in traps, look up the floor and try and convert it.”
Notre Dame didn’t do much of either in the final 16 minutes. When it did break loose, it missed a couple makeable shots that might’ve made Syracuse scrap the press altogether. One that stands out came with 11:28 left and Notre Dame leading 58-47. Forward Nik Djogo’s layup in a two-on-one rolled off the rim. He pulled down his own miss and kicked out to Goodwin, a 39 percent three-point shooter entering the game. Goodwin clanked an open three.
“We just have to make a couple of those looks we had when we broke the press,” junior guard Trey Wertz said. “That would break them off the press a little bit.”
Elsewhere, Notre Dame often found itself aimlessly dribbling and passing around the perimeter when it did face Syracuse’s 2-3 zone in the second half. The same defense it shredded in the opening half got its hands on more passes and denied some others. Point guard Prentiss Hubb, whose eighth assist gave Notre Dame its 20-point advantage, was 0-for-5 – all threes – with two turnovers and two assists afterward.
“It’s a make or miss game,” Wertz said. “They made more shots in that stretch.”
And because of it, Notre Dame is headed for a March without much suspense.
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