Everett: ND loss was understandable, but team can’t form bad habits
Joe Everett | Wednesday, December 6, 2017
That was the general reaction on Twitter after No. 9 Notre Dame was upset by a score of 80-77 at the hands of Ball State, and it’s not a false one. Objectively, Tuesday’s loss inside Purcell Pavilion is now a medium-sized blemish on Notre Dame’s resume. The Cardinals (5-4) came to South Bend with a 1-4 road record on the year and a 0-9 record in the all-time series against the Irish (7-2).
No longer. Tuesday night’s win over Notre Dame was Ball State’s first win over a nationally ranked opponent for the first time since it downed No. 4 UCLA 91-73 more than 16 years ago. So yes, this was a shocking win for the Cardinals, and a bad loss for the Irish.
Yet, it was an understandable loss.
Ball State is better than people realize. In his postgame press conference after Sunday’s 71-53 over St. Francis Brooklyn, Irish head coach Mike Brey noted as much when he said the Irish would prepare for Ball State as if it were NC State. And for good reason — the Cardinals only lost by one point at Dayton in early November and headed into Purcell Pavilion on a three-game winning streak, including 93-85 win on the road against Indiana State on Nov. 25, defeating a good Sycamores team that handed Indiana a loss early in the year. Playing in an in-state game with a large Ball State contingent in the stands, coupled with the fact that it was a midweek game the week before finals, and it’s easy to see how the various factors came together to create a perfect trap game for the Irish.
The Irish fell into the trap, and while that hurts, they almost pulled themselves out of it. After senior guard Matt Farrell hit a 3-pointer with 24 seconds left to tie the game at 77 apiece, many believed the Irish would find a way to pull out the win, just as they had against Wichita State in the Maui Invitational finale. Column ideas regarding phrases like “gritty win,” “veteran squad pulls through” and “Irish prove once again they can win the close game” flashed through my mind.
Then, Ball State junior guard Tayler Persons — who had a tremendous game with 24 points to lead the Cardinals — sized up junior guard Rex Pflueger in the final seconds and drained a 3-pointer in the defender’s face from the left-wing with less than two seconds left.
But look, losing to Ball State in early December isn’t Armageddon. This team is still figuring out its identity and what its strengths are on both ends of the court. This loss stings, but it can be a good teaching point for Brey and the Irish. They’ll bounce back.
However, what is concerning is that the Irish exhibited the same flaws that have gotten them in trouble throughout the last week and a half. For example, the Irish once again started slowly on the offensive side of the ball, trailed at halftime and had to dig themselves out of a hole in the second half. Halfway through the first half, the Irish only had 13 points, and they went into the locker room trailing 34-29. This isn’t a healthy trend, especially when it continues to appear against teams like St. Francis Brooklyn, and it should be a large concern for Brey and his staff. I know the recipe of “second-half comeback” somehow ended up working out against Wichita State, but it clearly failed against Michigan State, allowed St. Francis Brooklyn to hang around Sunday and it failed the Irish on Tuesday.
So overall, while Notre Dame’s home loss to Ball State was shocking and unexpected, we should recognize that this was seen by the players and coaches as a much more competitive matchup than the fans probably saw it. While that didn’t change the outcome, it does help us understand how and why it happened. It’s early in the season, and unexpected upsets and surprising losses like this happen all the time.
The Irish just have to make sure it doesn’t become a habit.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.