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Men’s Basketball

Notre Dame doomed by 26-0 run in season-opening loss to Michigan State

| Monday, November 30, 2020

After a long offseason, and four COVID-19 tests leading up to the game, including one mere hours before tipoff, the Notre Dame men’s basketball team was simply “thrilled to get the game in,” according to head coach Mike Brey. The Irish (0-1) already had to find a way to replace the production and leadership of the graduated John Mooney, T.J. Gibbs and Rex Pluefger, and to make matters even more difficult, it was a road game against one of the top teams in the country, No. 13 Michigan State. 

For about 12 minutes, it appeared to be all clicking for the Irish. Notre Dame was leading the Spartans 26-22 just after the under-eight timeout in the first half, before they “lost control” of the game, according to Brey. Thanks to the Spartans’ (2-0) aggressive defense, poor shooting and turnovers which Brey described as “careless,” Michigan State went on a 26-0 scoring run spanning both halves. It effectively put the game out of reach for the Irish mere minutes into the second half.

“It’s a great example of how fragile the game is,” Brey said. 

The teams traded baskets early in the contest. Back-to-back three pointers from junior and Stanford transfer guard Cormac Ryan, playing in his first game with the Irish after sitting out last season, gave Notre Dame an 8-7 lead. Ryan would quickly cool off, however. He finished the contest with 13 points on 3-12 shooting.

“Just to be out there, and (to) find a rhythm at times was good for him,” Brey said of Ryan. 

After a short Spartans run, back-to-back jumpers from junior guard Prentiss Hubb tied the contest at 15. Hubb finished with a game-high 23 points.

“It’s Prentiss’ team,” Brey said. “I appreciated his leadership tonight.”

However, Hubb also finished with five turnovers and shot just 7-22 from the field.

“He’s a fearless guy,” Brey said. “He’s got to almost force some plays at times, which means he’s going to turn it over, or maybe take a bad shot.”

Junior forward Nate Laszewski made a difficult and-one shot while falling to the court just before the under-eight media timeout. He converted the free throw to give the Irish a 26-22 lead, but Michigan State dominated the remainder of the first half.

“They’re really athletic defensively and they got, physically, up into us,” Brey said of the Spartans defense. “They’re playing downhill on you, they’ve got a lot of bodies coming at you.”

The Spartans took a 17-0 run into the break, including back-to-back alley-oop dunks and a ferocious putback slam. The Irish did not score in the final seven minutes of the half.

“We stopped moving the ball,” Brey said. “It was two passes, and then someone put their head down, and that’s why bad shots, forced shots, turnovers and the run was on to pretty much knock us out before the half.”

Michigan State didn’t lose any momentum in the locker room, scoring the first nine points of the second half to open up a 22-point lead, before two free throws from Ryan finally ended the scoring drought for the Irish.

“We tried to play fast with them as they were making their huge run,” Hubb said postgame. “We thought that maybe playing at the same speed would get us back, but I think if we would’ve just [slowed] down, slow our game down and just [took] it one play at a time, we would’ve been able to be closer in the end of that first half.”

The Irish continued to struggle to find open looks, and the Spartans scored easily in transition, prompting an early timeout from Brey.

“We’ve just got to play hard for a full 40 minutes,” Hubb said. “I think we kind of let up at the end of the first half and at the beginning of the second half. I think If we come out with that same energy that we came out with in the last 10 minutes of the game, I think we would’ve [had] a different outcome.” 

Hubb kept the Irish from falling into a deeper hole, scoring 18 points in the second half, but the Irish defense struggled to defend the dynamic Spartans offense, routinely giving up open three-point baskets and points in the paint. A 7-0 Notre Dame run cut the deficit to 16, but the Spartans stout defense kept them from getting closer until multiple Michigan State substitutions and fouls in garbage time brought the Irish to within 10. 

“I like in the second half we continued to compete, and I thought our defense was better in stretches in the second half,” Brey said. 

Hubb called the tough competition Michigan State presented a “learning experience.”

“We got to play against a really physical team, and they pushed the ball really hard,” Hubb said. “Going forward, we’re going to have to be able dig in, and box out and rebound, and match other teams’ intensities.” 

The forward combination of Laszewski, graduate student Juwan Durham and freshman Matt Zona struggled at times defensively, allowing the Spartans to score 34 points in the paint and pull down 12 offensive rebounds. Durham, after averaging just 17.5 minutes per game last year, played 30 minutes Saturday.

“This was new territory for him,” Brey said. “His body’s got to get used to that a little bit.” 

Durham finished with just four points, but added three blocked shots.

“I loved that he was going to the rim and trying to get calls,” Brey said. “He needs to continue to do that.”

The Spartans depth was a difference maker in the game as well. The Spartans continually rotated players in and out, while Notre Dame’s starters each played at least 30 minutes.

“We’ve got to keep finding some guys to come off the bench and help us,” Brey said.

With such a daunting schedule ahead of the Irish, depth is certainly a concern. Santa Clara juior transfer guard Trey Wertz being granted eligibility would help in that regard.

“We’re continuing to work on getting Trey eligible,” Brey said. 

The Irish open their home slate against Western Michigan on Wednesday before potentially another contest later in the week. Brey tweeted on Friday that the Irish were looking for an opponent after their game with preseason No. 12 team Tennessee was cancelled. Notre Dame is set to play one of the most difficult schedules in college basketball this season, with 25 of their 27 games coming against Power 5 teams, including 10 matchups with opponents ranked in the preseason top-25.

Tip off against Western Michigan is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion.

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