Notre Dame figuring out its identity on the court as the Irish begin to mature

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Earning a spot among the men’s college basketball’s elite is an uphill battle for Notre Dame.

Games like Saturday night’s 62-56 loss to third-ranked Virginia can serve as a gauge of progress.

The No. 13 Irish aren’t there yet. The blueprint’s in place, but it’s a process.

The process may not have taken a significant step in the right direction Saturday against the undefeated Cavaliers at Purcell Pavilion, but at least it wasn’t backpedal at full-speed like last year.

Maybe the Irish are beyond those sorts of lopsided losses.

Now, that would be progress.

“I guess it’s encouraging,” Irish coach Mike Brey said, gritting his teeth at the suggestion of having to feel good about a loss. “We didn’t have an answer for them last year. They may be the best team in the [Atlantic Coast Conference].

“I think we’re developing an identity in the league. That was our goal when we joined this thing. We didn’t really have that last year. We have a style of play.”

That identity is forged in maturity.

Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon did a shut-down defensive job Irish star Jerian Grant (six points, 2-of-8 shooting), which put the burden of scoring on other shoulders.

Enter V.J. Beachem (12 points) off the bench, Pat Connaughton (21 points, eight boards) and Demetrius Jackson (12 points, six rebounds).

I think we’re developing an identity in the league. That was our goal when we joined this thing. We didn’t really have that last year. We have a style of play.
— Mike Brey

That’s an identity of stepping up.

Then again, there’s something to be said for a complete team effort. Notre Dame played with one position tied behind its back. The three Irish big men — Zach Auguste, Martinas Geben and Austin Torres — combined for five points, seven rebounds, 2-of-11 shooting and four (all by Auguste) of Notre Dame’s six turnovers.

In other words, add an inside game to what’s already there and finding a way to be competitive with the best in the league — and the country — could become a reality.

“I don’t want those three hanging their heads, [because] we need them, man,” Brey said.

Whether or not that can still happen this year is still in question.

Notre Dame solved one of its glaring shortcomings from recent games. The Irish won the rebounding battle, 35-34, and even dominated the Cavs on the offensive glass, 16-8.

Another hollow victory?

“Lot of good it did us,” Brey deadpanned about the rebounding edge. “I’d much rather give up 20 [offensive] boards and win by two in triple-overtime.”

Virginia’s pressure-cooker of a defense impacted Notre Dame’s shooting stats (34 percent, 20-of-59). The Irish caused their own problems by hitting just six of 12 free throws. With just six turnovers, 10 3-pointers, and the advantage on the boards, the numbers said the Irish should have won.

That’s the part of the identity that needs some work.

One key moment of the game gave the Cavaliers that final push. Notre Dame led 51-50 with 4:33 to play. Virginia guard London Perrantes was struggling with the ball. Grant and Jackson had him pinned between the sideline and halfcourt. Just before Perrantes fell out of bounds from the pressure (one official even signaled Irish possession), Cavs coach Tony Bennett called a timeout.

Seven seconds out of the timeout, Brogdon drilled a 3-pointer from deep. After a basket by Connaughton, Justin Anderson connected on another long bomb to seize the momentum for good.

“We definitely needed that one,” said Jackson. “We thought we had it, but we didn’t get it.”

“Anderson’s 3 in the corner was the shot of a big-time, all-conference, NBA guy,” Brey said.

Finishing is critical, especially against the top tier. The North Carolina victory to start the week was encouraging, but that part of the identity is still a work in progress.

“We’re in a great position,” Brey said. “We played our backsides off today. A good team got the better of us down the stretch. They played like a group that’s done it a little more than us.

“I’m hoping, in a month, we’re maybe more like them, that we could be really poised like that in crunch time.”

No need to put a happy face on the loss.

But, finally, the process has a plan.

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