Old Mistakes Come Back And Dent Notre Dame Fighting Irish Men's Basketball's Mojo In 82-80 Loss At Georgia Tech
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Old Mistakes Come Back And Dent Notre Dame’s Mojo In Loss At Georgia Tech

Notre Dame felt like it was past this.

Gone, the Irish thought, were the second-half letdowns, strings of empty possessions and dispassionate stretches of defense that led to a 3-8 start. A 4-1 record in the last five games revealed they can get down and guard if they commit to it. Can take care of the ball. Can put opponents away after taking a halftime lead.

With each recent victory, those early season maladies felt more like bad memories instead of flaws that still linger.

Not so fast.

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Notre Dame squandered a 50-35 halftime lead in an 82-80 loss at Georgia Tech.
Notre Dame squandered a 50-35 halftime lead in an 82-80 loss at Georgia Tech. (ACC)

The good vibes met a pothole of old habits Saturday night in Atlanta. An 82-80 loss at Georgia Tech Saturday night featured all of them. The events that produced the defeat ought to sting more than a loss itself. Georgia Tech (9-6, 5-4 ACC) is a veteran ACC team whose top three scorers are as good as any in the league. It hadn’t lost a home conference game this year. Leaving with a loss was always a distinct possibility.

In addition to taking an L, though, Notre Dame (7-10, 4-7) heads into a Tuesday afternoon road game at Duke having revealed it is still not quite rid of troublesome tendencies and still a punch or two short against the best teams on its schedule. That’s not a fun place to reside. Not one the Irish appeared destined for again. They’re now 0-7 in Quadrant 1 opportunities (a home win over a NET top 30 team, neutral-court win over a NET top 50 team and road win over a top-75 team).

Notre Dame and coach Mike Brey spent the last few weeks doing some introspection for ways to bump up defensive intensity and urgency. There were practice tweaks and adjusted points of emphasis. In came the “stop-score” metric as a measuring stick and the one-on-one defensive “compete drill” designed to bring out some more pride on that end of the floor.

The changes worked and brought some real, tangible improvement. Then it came to a halt. For the first time since Jan. 13, Notre Dame allowed more than 70 points and 1.0 points per possession.

“I don’t think our compete drill mentality was very good tonight when we had to put a chest on a guy,” Brey said.

The game script is unnervingly familiar too. The Irish opened by rip-cording through Georgia Tech on both ends and built a 50-35 halftime lead. They committed only two turnovers and shot 65.5 percent in the opening 20 minutes. It was a swift and surgical performance.

A third straight blowout victory appeared on the horizon. The last three times Notre Dame held a comfortable halftime lead, it emerged from the locker room and put the game to bed in short order. The previous time out, a Feb. 2 win over Wake Forest, a three-point advantage at the break swelled to 19 before five minutes had passed.

Georgia Tech, though, needed only the first 2:28 of the half to pull within five.

“Our defense kind of let us down tonight,” Brey said. “We sure didn’t start the second half like the last two games.”

In cutting a 17-point hole with 6:47 left in the first half to five points, Georgia Tech scored on 15 of 17 possessions. The Yellow Jackets made 35 shots, and 18 of them were either a layup or dunk. They shot 62.5 percent in the second half.

"We lost our defensive focus there for a little bit," junior forward Nate Laszewski said. "We played well offensively. We've got to get back to that defensive mentality."

On the offense, Laszewski is by and large correct. Notre Dame still shot 59.3 percent for the game, its best mark against a high-major team this year. All but seven of its shot attempts were at the rim or from three-point range.

But there was one more old bugaboo that resurfaced. Notre Dame committed nine turnovers in the second half, which equated to a 26.5 percent turnover rate. It took the oomph out of a 52 percent shooting in the final 20 minutes.

The Irish scored only 30 points despite making more than half their shots in the second stanza. Giving away the ball every fourth time down the floor will do that. So will some reckless drives by junior point guard Prentiss Hubb, who was 2-for-9 after halftime despite a sound 15-point, 10-assist game. Notre Dame had one field goal and four points in the final 6:03.

Brey’s overall explanation for the second half was also an unwelcomed blast from the past.

“They out-athleted us,” Brey said. “It has happened a bunch to us this season. We’re not going to all of a sudden get more athletic this season.”

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Athleticism shortcomings do not, though, explain how ACC steals leader Jose Alvarado snuck up on unaware Notre Dame guards for six takeaways. Or how Notre Dame still managed to hang 50 points in the first half. Or how a final possession with a chance to tie or win didn’t even produce a shot attempt. Or some suspect decision-making on offense down the stretch. Or how Laszewski and graduate student center Juwan Durham were a combined 15-for-16 on two-point attempts.

All told, Notre Dame had enough juice to win and put more fuel in another patented second-half run.

Had enough resurgences of old diseases, though, to make the following days about regrouping instead.

“I have no speeches for them,” Brey said. “There’s no rah-rah BS. We didn’t finish it, didn’t get it done. Grow up and get another chance on the road Tuesday.”

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