Notre Dame Still Searching For Answers After Another Familiar Loss
The latest chapter is a lot like a few previous ones.
Notre Dame, on the first half of a road swing through the Commonwealth of Virginia, showed up in Blacksburg Sunday night with a cool strut that turned into a trudge in mud and another defeat with a familiar plot.
A 77-63 loss to No. 19 Virginia Tech was Notre Dame’s 26th straight loss against a ranked opponent and its fourth in as many ACC games. The Irish began with their best half of the conference season. Nearly every shot they generated was makeable. They averaged 1.35 points per possession on the way to a 42-35 halftime lead.
From there, though, just two field goals hit the bottom of the nylon and a stirring start ended with a stumble over the same old tripwire. Notre Dame looks masterful for a half — the first one, usually — and absent for another.
The Irish got away with their inconsistency a month ago at Kentucky. Not so much against Ohio State earlier in December or North Carolina last time out. Asked for his theory on the recurring issue, head coach Mike Brey offered an eyebrow-raising response.
“We’re still trying to learn how to be more mentally tough when we’re not in a good offensive rhythm,” Brey said. “Our attitude to defend was better in the first half, because we were scoring. But they really guarded us in the second half and took things away. Your shot doesn’t go in, you miss a couple in a row, then you have to be mentally tough enough to go back and guard. We don’t understand that yet.
“You’re not going to beat a good team by playing 20 to 25 minutes.”
It sounds like something Brey would’ve said plenty back in 2018-19, when he was rolling out a lineup full of freshmen amid a 3-15 conference season. Understandable in that scenario. A little more puzzling now, with a team giving minutes to a large junior class and a couple fifth-year seniors who suffered through that rebuilding year.
When Brey refers to the lumps his group took back then, a reasonable assumption is mental toughness development was among them. But Notre Dame is 3-7 two seasons later, still in an education process that hasn’t yet ended.
Teaching a team how to be tough in critical moments or for two entire halves is not done with the same process as coaching someone to be a better shooter or teaching the playbook. There’s a degree of inherent ability needed. Brey thinks it’s there. Just not unlocked often enough. That’s a mix he says he has waded through before.
“We have kids who will really stick their nose in there and do some stuff, but we need some more guys to do that,” Brey said. “It’s really no different than what I’ve experienced through 21 years here. We get really great kids who are really smart. For the most part, you have to try and make them a little tougher. A lot of times, they have to have their nose rubbed through the gutter. Then they react because they’re sharp and have high character. I believe the lightbulb will go on at some point.”
If it was on for anyone Sunday, it lit the path for fifth-year senior and team captain Nik Djogo. In a spot start, he grabbed half of Notre Dame’s six offensive rebounds, drew three fouls and hit the ground in pursuit of an up-for-grabs basketball on a couple occasions. He doesn’t have all the answers for finding an uptick in mental fortitude, but understands where it is needed most.
“We have to dig in when the other team is making a run and getting more aggressive offensively,” Djogo said. “We have to do our part, lock in defensively and get those loose [balls]. We have to want to more than they do. If we don’t, we’re going to keep losing games.”
The second half of Sunday’s game qualifies as a gutter-rubbing that ought to usher in some response and reaction.
Notre Dame was outscored 42-21 and shot 2 of 19 in the final 20 minutes. It committed seven turnovers. On the night, it was out-rebounded by 17. Virginia Tech’s defensive game plan was to switch all screens. It took away one of the Irish’s most consistent threats — junior forward Nate Laszewski as a shooter. The Hokies blanketed the pick-and-pop plays that led to so many of Laszewski’s three-point attempts in recent games. He took one shot from deep, though he still scored 17 points.
The Fighting Irish have resembled Brey’s best teams for stretches of games and often follow it with a confounding opposite. They become easy to defend, erratic in their decision-making and shot selection. As Brey noted, it carries over to some listless defensive possessions and rebounding efforts.
“We continue to learn the hard way,” Brey said.
If that’s not enough, the next opponent has a habit of making life hard.
Notre Dame’s trip continues Wednesday when it meets a bastion of toughness: a rematch with No. 15 Virginia. The Cavaliers beat the Irish 66-57 on Dec. 30. That game had some good Notre Dame moments and a few more wayward ones — the familiar cocktail that has fueled the ranked opponent losing streak. The one Notre Dame wants to dump out and thinks it can. The one it certainly doesn’t want to swallow and accept as reality.
“We haven’t showed it, but I know how tough we can play,” Djogo said. “It’s a very long season and there are a lot of games to play. There’s a fine line from learning from our mistakes and not putting our heads down, because the games keep coming at us.”
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