Irish ready to break out, Cavaliers have other plans

By Jerry Ratcliffe

sam hauser

Sam Hauser had 13 points and 10 rebounds in Virginia’s 66-57 win at Notre Dame. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

Mike Brey believes his Notre Dame team is going to break out of its slump at any time now. Tony Bennett is hoping it’s not today.

Brey’s Irish (3-7, 0-4 ACC) play at Bennett’s John Paul Jones Arena where the Golden Domers have never won, although they pushed the host Cavaliers into overtime last season. The game is set for a 4:30 tipoff (ACC Network).

Today’s contest will be the second meeting between UVA and Notre Dame since Dec. 30 in South Bend, where the Cavaliers led 30-24 at halftime before prevailing 77-63. The Irish haven’t won a game since Dec. 12, losing their last three games in a row and five of their last six.

“We continue to learn the hard way,” Brey said. “We’ve been happy at halftime a couple times.”

The second half? Not so much.

Notre Dame has pushed teams the first 20 minutes of games but can’t sustain the effort in order to close out an opponent. Against Virginia Tech last Sunday, then against North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio State, Brey’s squad has averaged 40.5 points, shot slightly over 50 percent from the field and 41.5 from the arc, 5.5 turnovers. In all four games, the Irish led at the half.

The second halves were quite a contrast, which is why the Irish lost three of those four games. During those collective halves, Notre Dame averaged a mere 28.7 points per game while shooting 29 percent shooting (34 percent from the 3-point line) and 7.5 turnovers.

All this has left Brey scratching his head.

“We get really great kids and they’re really smart,” he said. “For the most part, you’ve got to try and make them a little tougher. A lot of times they’ve got to have their nose rubbed through the gutter and then they react.”

Bennett, whose 18th-ranked Cavaliers are 7-2 and 3-0 in the ACC, has enjoyed a 10-0 regular season record against the Irish. He knows Notre Dame is capable and is taking nothing for granted after last year’s close call at JPJ and only outscoring the Irish 36-33 in the second half in their first meeting.

That’s quite a contrast from the Brey team that scored only two buckets at Virginia Tech on Sunday, going 18:16 without a basket.

The Cavaliers haven’t forgotten how Nate Laszewski tore up their Pack-Line defense a couple weeks ago, posting 28 points. The Irish haven’t forgotten how UVA point guard Kihei Clark lit them up for 19 points, including a big basket that put Virginia up 45-44 with 9:14 to play, followed by two huge Sam Hauser 3-pointers down the stretch.

Brey talked about how Clark’s ability to penetrate the lane broke down the Irish defense the second half when the UVA guard scored 14 of his 19 points.

“I think we’re capable of standing up,” Brey said after watching his team lose a seven-point lead against North Carolina. “We’re right there, we’re really close.”

The problem hasn’t really been offense. Notre Dame, which is ranked No. 88 overall nationally by Kenpom.com’s statistical ratings, is No. 33 in offensive efficiency. The problem is defense where the Irish stand No. 196 in efficiency.

By contrast, UVA (No. 15 overall) is No. 36 offensively and No. 9 defensively.

Virginia has improved on the defensive side of things since ACC play began as some of the new faces have begun to gain a grip on the Pack-Line intricacies. Seven-footer Jay Huff is coming off a dominating performance at Boston College over the weekend when he put up 18 points (7-11 FG), grabbed eight rebounds and blocked five shots. Teammate Hauser, who is UVA’s leading scorer and rebounder on the season, posted his third consecutive double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds.

Clark, by the way, continued his onslaught in the paint, scoring a dozen points on a 6 of 8 shooting performance, all of his baskets coming in the lane. He also had three assists and one turnover in 40 minutes. During his ACC three-game spree, Clark is shooting 64 percent from the floor.

Notre Dame has lost its last 26 games against ranked teams.

“I believe this group,” Brey said, “the lightbulb will go on at some point.”

Bennett would be happy if that point comes after the Irish leave town.

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