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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

Irish seek first road win against Yellow Jackets

The last time Notre Dame took on Georgia Tech, the mood in South Bend was hopeful. The Irish had emerged with a come-from-behind, 73-72 overtime victory at Purcell Pavilion. It seemed, after five straight losses to open conference play, they were primed to turn the season around. 

It was hard to believe that a team coming off a top-three finish in the ACC, a team that was minutes away from a Sweet Sixteen berth, could fall off so drastically.

“Obviously we haven’t started off the ACC schedule the way as we’d like, but we still got 14 more games to prove it and get back on track,” graduate student guard Dane Goodwin said after that game, which saw the Irish erase a seven-point deficit in the final four minutes to force overtime. “We have the ability to do it, we have the ability to close out games like tonight.”

Yet less than a month later, those hopeful sentiments ring hollow. The Irish have gone on to lose five of their six conference games since. Their only win came against an abysmal Louisville team. In fact, Notre Dame has yet to win a game against a team ahead of them in the conference standings. The Irish currently sit 13th in the ACC, ahead of only the Cardinals and Yellow Jackets.

In that stretch, they have shown no ability to close out close games. They fell on the road to Syracuse despite leading by as many as twelve points in the second half. They dropped a one-possession game to North Carolina State in Raleigh. Perhaps most disconcertingly, they lost by a dozen points at home to a mediocre Boston College team in a game that was there for the taking until the closing minutes.

“In the two games we’ve won in the league, the other team helped us a bit,” head coach Mike Brey said after the most recent loss, an 81-64 defeat to Wake Forest. “These guys aren’t going to help you.”

Even against a Georgia Tech team that sits 1-12 in ACC play, including a double-digit loss to that same Louisville team that was blown out in South Bend only recently, the Irish might need more help to get their first road win of the year.

“We’ll go to Atlanta and keep on playing,” a dejected Brey said after Saturday’s loss. “You’d love to see if you can get a little momentum before you go to Greensboro (for the ACC tournament).”

The Irish will need more from Goodwin if they hope to return home with a win on Wednesday. He paced the Irish with 19 points and a season-high 12 rebounds in the win on Jan. 10. Yet he scored just six points on 2-12 shooting in the loss to Wake Forest. Goodwin has had a disappointing stretch of games after he was a key to the Irish’s success a year ago.

Yet Goodwin can’t do it alone. The Irish have struggled on the glass all season, particularly recently with the absence of freshman forward Ven-Allen Lubin. Lubin has missed the last two games with an ongoing foot injury. They were out-rebounded 37-23 on the defensive glass against Wake Forest.

Brey, who has become known for his thin rotations, does not have many options available behind Lubin. Freshman Dom Campbell, his primary backup, is unavailable for several weeks due to an Achilles injury. That leaves junior Matt Zona, the student section favorite who had played just 33 minutes this year prior to Saturday’s game. Zona added little on offense and was a liability at times on defense against the Demon Deacons as they racked up 28 points in the paint. Zona has played few meaningful minutes in his three-plus years with the Irish, but he’ll get a chance to prove himself down the stretch as Lubin and Campbell both deal with injuries.

Lubin practiced Monday and will have a chance to play Wednesday, according to theSouth Bend Tribune’s Tom Noie, which would be a much-needed boost for the Irish.

Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets are in the midst of a nine-game slide dating back to early January. It is a prime opportunity for Notre Dame to get their first road win.

If they hope to do that, however, the Irish will have to work to keep Georgia Tech off the offensive glass. Georgia Tech collects 11 offensive boards per game, good for third in the conference. The Irish, meanwhile, typically don’t benefit from second-chance points, averaging just 6.9 offensive boards, the fewest in the ACC.

Limiting second-chance opportunities will be key against one of the worst shooting teams in the country. Georgia Tech is shooting at a lowly 41.2% clip from the field, last in the conference. It will be a prove-it game for an Irish defense that has been among the conference’s worst in the conference this season. 

The beauty of college basketball is that the season is never truly over thanks to the conference tournament format. But with just eight games remaining before the ACC tournament, time is running out to right the ship.

Wednesday’s game tips off at 7 p.m. from McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. The contest is available on regional sports networks and the Notre Dame Radio Network.