Able to sail through league play with seven consecutive wins, which included an attention-getting upset (Pittsburgh), quality comebacks (Marquette, Louisville) and sustained road success (three in a row), No. 8 Notre Dame found out how teams on the wrong end of the scoreboard live Saturday at unranked West Virginia.
The first loss since Jan. 16 produced its share of hand-wringing and heartache for wary Notre Dame faithful worried that, for as special as this season has been, it suddenly may be headed in the wrong direction.
That must mean it’s time to count to 10, take a deep breath and look closer at the bigger picture. Notre Dame was one of seven teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 10 that lost within a crazy eight-day span. Four of the top five teams in the Big East also were beaten.
It happens. Everywhere. Home. Road. To good teams and teams everyone expects to be great.
No one expected the Irish to rip off 11 consecutive wins to close the regular season. Every team in every league is going to be knocked back on its heels. It’s how they respond after that happens that separates the elite from the others -- and plenty of chances at redemption await the Irish (21-5, 10-4 Big East).
Notre Dame gets a chance to bounce back with two league games this week - win and all will be right with the world. Lose, and some still will seemingly insist the end really is near.
Here are four questions that percolated late Saturday afternoon as the Irish walked out of a basketball arena with a loss for the first time in 34 days.
What part of playing on the road finally caught up to Notre Dame?
Allowing the crowd to get crazy. The Irish were so locked in late last month at Pittsburgh that fans in the Petersen Events Center never were a factor. Ditto for subsequent league wins at DePaul (by 25 points) and at South Florida (by 23). Notre Dame was so efficient and scary effective in those two games that the building actually felt pro-Irish.
Saturday’s first half was played in front of a seemingly indifferent audience. Even the West Virginia students, who stand for entire games, were statue-still. But when the Mountaineers got rolling, the building was abuzz.
It was the first time since the lopsided loss to Marquette on Jan. 10 that the Irish were caught up in trying to quiet the crowd noise. They rushed into their offensive sets, were pressured into silly turnovers and decisions and seldom exhibited much. It made it all worse.
Few league teams win four in a row on the road. With one game left in this swing - Wednesday at Providence - the Irish need to again quiet a hostile crowd and be ready to battle for 40 minutes, something that didn’t happen Saturday.
Good teams can run off extended league win streaks. Really good teams ignore an atmosphere like the one inside West Virginia Coliseum and find a way.
Any red flags raised in Morgantown?
The way Notre Dame lost - again by double digits on the road in league play - is a bit disconcerting. The Irish have lost all five of their games this season by double digits - 14, 12, 22, 18 and 14 - but the one to West Virginia is the first without an asterisk.
Letting it get away to Kentucky in Louisville was predictable. So was the second-half collapse at the Carrier Dome against a Syracuse team that was really rolling. Late last week, Brey brushed aside concerns over Notre Dame’s previous road meltdowns - to Marquette by 22 and by 18 to St. John’s. He explained that the most important factor in those was not dealing with a fragile team psyche but to have Carleton Scott, then out with a slight tear to his left hamstring, back healthy.
With Scott in the mix, the Irish are an entirely different outfit.
All hands were on deck Saturday, but the Irish went down hard. Really hard. The game was there for the taking early in the second half, but Notre Dame seemed to approach it like one that had won seven straight - if an OK effort was enough to get it, great. If not, there’s always this week.