CLEMSON, S.C. – Add another to the growing near-miss list for a Notre Dame men’s basketball team that remains headed in the wrong direction.
Able to get the last four Atlantic Coast Conference contests to game situations in the closing minutes of regulation, Notre Dame has been unable to close any of them.
The latest meltdown letdown surfaced Saturday at Littlejohn Coliseum against a No. 20 Clemson team that had never before beaten Notre Dame.
But Aamir Sims, who once was on the recruiting consideration list of Notre Dame, connected on an open corner 3 with 64 seconds remaining to give Clemson some much-needed breathing room for a 67-58 victory.
“That Sims 3 in the corner was a back-breaker,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “I didn’t know he was a three-point shooter.”
Losers of four league games in a row for the second-straight season and third time in five ACC years, Notre Dame falls to 13-7, 3-4 in the league. The Irish have not won since Jan. 6 at Syracuse. They lost their previous three league games by a combined 12 points.
“We’re not dead in the water, but we’re searching,” Brey said. “We’ll dig in and fight.”
The Irish now are 1-3 against ranked teams.
“Our group is a little wounded,” Brey said.
Down by as many as 11 in the first half and by eight in the second, it looked like Notre Dame might hang around long enough to get the proverbial road steal. The Irish continued to defend, to an extent, and rebound, really well again, but still couldn’t make enough shots.
“We kept trying to come back and make it interesting, and we did,” Brey said.
Still, when sophomore John Mooney connected on a corner 3-pointer in front of the Irish bench, the visitors were right there, just as they’d been against Georgia Tech and North Carolina and Louisville. But Notre Dame could get no closer than 59-56 after the Mooney bucket. Just like in those previous three games, it was the OTHER team making the plays and the shots and getting the stops needed to win this one.
“They made big shots and big plays in a big game,” Brey said. “I loved our fight. We’re giving ourselves a chance.”
Close again for the Irish, but not close enough.
Notre Dame finished with a (+6) rebounding advantage, the seventh time in the last eight games it has out-rebounded the opposition. That included 11 offensive rebounds.
“We’ve been doing that,” Brey said. “We’re not as good a first-shot making team as we’ve been maybe historically.”
The Irish shot 38.7 percent from the field and 25.8 percent from 3. The starting guard trio of T.J. Gibbs, Matt Farrell and Rex Pflueger were a combined 11-for-37 from the field, 5-for-24 from 3.
Mooney finished with a career-high 13 points. Gibbs scored a team-high 18. Power forward Martinas Geben added 10 points and nine rebounds.
It was a long afternoon scramble for the Irish. They never led and trailed for all but 19 seconds.
Starting a different lineup for the seventh time in the first seven league games, Notre Dame did what it couldn’t afford to do in front of a sellout crowd away from home. It fell into a double-digit hole and labored to score.
The Irish trailed by as many as 11 less than seven minutes in because they kept doing what they’ve done in the last three games. They kept missing shots. Inside. Outside. Contested. Open. Rushed. Relaxed. Midway through the first half, Notre Dame had missed nine of its first 10 shots. There was no flow. No movement. No rhythm that’s been so important and so consistent in seasons past.
“We keep slapping stuff together on the fly,” Brey said. “Defensively, we’re doing the job. And we’re rebounding the ball. We just can’t score enough and find an offensive rhythm to beat good teams.
“And this darn league has all good teams.”
While the Irish couldn’t make anything, the Tigers couldn’t miss. Clemson connected on its first seven field goal attempts to open the early lead. But just when it looked like it was going to be another one of those halves for the Irish, they got going in the right direction.
And that thanks to Mooney. The sophomore came off the bench to score 10 points in 11 minutes. His eight-consecutive points, which included a pair of 3-pointers, helped shave the 11-point deficit to three, 23-20, with 3:11 remaining. Mooney then dusted off a jump hook in the lane to get the Irish within one in the closing seconds.
Mooney’s 10 points in 11 minutes were one shy of tying his career high, set three games earlier at Georgia Tech. He started the second half.
Notre Dame was back within one possession despite getting no points in 17 minutes from Farrell, its second leading scorer. He missed all three of his shots in the first half, less than four full days after going a staggering 48 minutes in the double-overtime loss to Louisville. That was Farrell’s first game back after missing the last three and a half with a sprained left ankle.
“We’ve played him on fumes the last two games,” Brey said.
Farrell missed his first four shots before getting a straight-on 3 to fall with 12:58 remaining. That brought the Irish to within five.
Notre Dame played Saturday without senior power forward Bonzie Colson (broken foot) and freshman swingman D.J. Harvey (bone bruise, left knee). The Irish are 2-4 without Colson.
Next up for Notre Dame is the mandatory week away from game action. The Irish play again Saturday at home against Virginia Tech.
“It doesn’t get any easier in this league,” Brey said. “And nobody feels sorry for you.”
No. 20 CLEMSON 67, NOTRE DAME 58
At Clemson, S.C.
NOTRE DAME (13-7): Torres 1-2 0-0 2, Geben 5-10 0-0 10, Gibbs 7-16 2-2 18, Pflueger 2-10 0-0 5, Farrell 2-11 0-0 6, Mooney 5-8 0-0 13, Burns 2-3 0-0 4, Djogo 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 24-62 2-2 58.
CLEMSON (16-3): Grantham 4-7 1-2 11, Thomas 4-8 0-0 8, Mitchell 3-8 5-6 12, Reed 4-10 2-2 12, DeVoe 5-12 4-5 17, Skara 1-2 0-0 2, Simms 2-4 0-0 5, Donnal 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 23-52 12-15 67.
Halftime--Clemson 33-30. 3-Point Goals--Notre Dame 8-31 (Mooney 3-5, Gibbs 2-8, Farrell 2-10, Pflueger 1-6, Djogo 0-2), Clemson 9-23 (DeVoe 3-10, Grantham 2-3, Reed 2-4, Simms 1-1, Mitchell 1-3, Skara 0-1, Donnal 0-1). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Notre Dame 36 (Geben 9), Clemson 31 (Mitchell, Thomas 7). Assists--Notre Dame 12 (Farrell 6), Clemson 12 (Mitchell 5). Total Fouls--Notre Dame 17, Clemson 10.