SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Three decades after LaPhonso Ellis played his last game at Notre Dame, he still finds ways to make an impact.
Now an ESPN college basketball analyst, Ellis was in town last month for his induction into the school’s Ring of Honor. During that visit, the former power forward met with the current keepers of an Irish program that has fallen into sustained mediocrity since back-to-back Elite Eight appearances in 2015 and 2016.
Still Notre Dame’s No. 2 all-time shot blocker and the school’s No. 4 all-time rebounder, Ellis certainly connected with Nate Laszewski.
“I said to Nate, and Nate knows I feel this way, that Nate Laszewski is a third- or second-team-caliber [all-]ACC-team guy,” Ellis said before Notre Dame’s Dec. 11 upset of 10th-ranked Kentucky. “Nate can play better, and he knows it and I think he will. He’ll take that challenge.”
Twenty-five days later, the senior stretch-four from Jupiter, Florida, torched North Carolina for 20 points on 6-for-7 shooting from three-point range. In a team-high 35 minutes, Laszewski also grabbed eight rebounds, avoided foul trouble and held his own with Tar Heels banger Armando Bacot.
“I’m thrilled for him,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “What’s probably lost in him shooting so well is the man defends his back side off. He works. And then he rebounds, and then he rotates over and takes a charge. He just gives so much effort on that defensive end.”
Despite blowing a 13-point second-half lead, the Irish (8-5) held on for a 78-73 win that wiped out some early-season frustrations and marked a 47-point turnaround from the 101-59 beatdown they took from UNC last March in the ACC Tournament.
Extra practice sessions during an eight-day layoff, thanks to Duke’s COVID-related cancellation of a New Year’s Day visit, seemed to help. Laszewski, who scored in double figures just three times in the first 12 games, credited Ellis for his pep talk.
“He comes around a few times a year,” Laszewski said. “I love seeing him. He always has great words of encouragement. He’s a great person to talk to.”
Anytime a young player gets a chance to speak with an 11-year NBA veteran, the potential for inspiration is clear.
“He’s got perspective,” Laszewski said. “He’s done it at the highest level. Just having him as support for our program is huge and for myself personally. It’s always great talking to him and hearing his encouragement for me.”
Sometimes, those words carry a needed edge. Asked if he took the pre-Kentucky chat as a challenge, Laszewski nodded.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “He sees something in me that I need to step up sometimes. Hopefully I can do that and make him proud.”
With wins over the Tar Heels and the Wildcats, Notre Dame became just the eighth team to pull off that rare double in the last 18-plus seasons. The rest of the list, going back to the start of the 2003-04 campaign, is Georgia Tech (2020-21), Duke (2018-19), Auburn (2018-19), Texas A&M (2017-18), Wisconsin (2014-15), Duke (2012-13) and Vanderbilt (2010-11).
In that same span, Kentucky and North Carolina combined for four NCAA Tournament titles and nine Final Four appearances. Two of those Elite Eight wins came at Notre Dame’s expense, with the top-seeded and unbeaten Wildcats surviving a 2015 thriller and the top-seeded Tar Heels overpowering Brey’s team a year later.
“I always say, you can’t take away from what Mike Brey has done here,” Ellis said. “I mean, dude went to back-to-back Elite Eights. So one thing we know is that dude can coach.”
And yet, Notre Dame still is trying to end an NCAA Tournament drought that has seen the team go a combined 74-66 over the last four-plus seasons. The Irish dropped 28 straight games to ranked opponents before a late-season upset of Florida State last season.
“We’re at a bit of a crossroads right now,” Ellis said last month. “We had an injury-riddled [2017-18] season, and it seems like we’ve been playing catch-up ever since. What I see right now is a group that’s talented but a group . . . who has lost their swag. This is a great time to get that swag back.”