SOUTH BEND – In a volatile season of college basketball, Notre Dame, once riding high, is now on the downswing.
After Monday night’s 84-74 loss to Duke at Purcell Pavilion, coach Mike Brey’s Irish have lost three straight games and four of their last five. That’s on the heels of starting Atlantic Coast Conference play 5-0.
“It’s the ebb and flow,” Brey said. “I don’t want us to overanalyze and get too crazy. Now if anything, you’re trying to keep your group confident because we have put ourselves in a good position with six league wins on Feb. 1. You won five in a row out of the gate. In this league, human nature says, ‘They’re coming,’ and we’re catching them right now.”
No. 20 Notre Dame (17-6, 6-4 ACC) fell behind by 13 midway through the second half. The immediate response was a 12-0 run to pull within 63-62, but the Blue Devils quickly restored a comfortable lead in front of a hostile, sold-out crowd at Purcell Pavilion.
No. 21 Duke (17-5, 5-4) produced arguably its top performance in January to finish the month 5-3. In addition, the Blue Devils stopped a 1-5 slump against Notre Dame that had unfolded over the previous three seasons.
“We beat a very good team,” said Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel, who is filling in during Mike Krzyzewski’s leave to recover from back surgery. “I thought we were resilient throughout the game. We’re growing up. We’ve become tougher.”
Not even 15 turnovers were enough to diminish a Duke offense that shot 52 percent from the field and buried 23 of 24 free throws. In situations where a basket was needed, Capel could direct the ball to Jayson Tatum, who had 19 points and 14 rebounds. Or Grayson Allen, who posted 21 points and five boards. Or even Matt Jones (16 points and five boards) or Luke Kennard (16 points).
Bonzie Colson was Notre Dame’s top performer with 17 points and nine rebounds, and former New Haven star V.J. Beachem scored 20 points, his seventh outing of at least 20 in his senior season. But Steve Vasturia (seven points on 1-of-9 shooting) was kept under wraps, and the Irish shot a rather ordinary 43 percent from the floor and missed nine free throws.
“We didn’t want to give up straight line drives,” Capel said, “and then we didn’t want to over-help when they did drive, because they are such a dangerous (perimeter) shooting team. We had a good game plan, and guys were really attentive to it.”
Brey credited Vasturia for exhaustive defense on Kennard and felt Vasturia didn’t have his legs as much on the offensive end.
Things don’t get any easier for the Irish with their next assignment being a road game Saturday at No. 12 North Carolina.
“I love our group,” Brey said. “We are getting smacked hard right now, but we’re getting smacked hard together.”
Notes: Brey’s technical foul was for an abrupt gesture that he felt the referee “could have ignored.” Brey said he apologized to his players. “I said, ‘That’s my bad, I shouldn’t get that technical in the second half,’ because I can’t do that to them,” Brey said. … Brey said he is considering going to a smaller starting lineup.