SOUTH BEND — It should have been enough to seal this one up.
The way Notre Dame downshifted to a smaller lineup 27 seconds into the second half and found an offensive flow. The way the Irish dug in and defended and got a couple big stops at big moments. The way they seemed to be pushed along by the home crowd, who were up and on their feet and cheering late instead of heading for the parking lots. The way they battled back from the verge of being boat-raced by No. 13 Louisville.
The way this one was seemingly there for their taking. All of it should have been enough.
Maybe in another season with another Irish team, one that truly knew how to close out close conference contests at home with confidence, it would have been enough. But not with this group. Not yet. And not Saturday as Notre Dame fell two stops short and a shot or two shy in a 67-64 loss at Purcell Pavilion.
When it comes to winning time — at home, in Atlantic Coast Conference play this season — something happens to the collective confidence of everyone in this program. The head coach. The staff. The upperclassmen. The underclassmen. The fan base. Everyone. There’s still a feeling that it’s not going to happen — and then it doesn’t — after so many seasons of it happening. These are games Notre Dame has to get. Still, it doesn’t.
It’s been two years and counting of this uncertainty. With the near-misses. With the chances to take a step but instead, a stumble. When’s all the karma going to change? Next week? Next month? Next year? Never? If it ever does, it will help this program look more like it used to and less like it currently does.
Like the one that scores only five points on its home floor the final 5:25? Like the one that can use a timeout in the closing seconds but doesn’t. Like the one that keeps the one guy (sophomore guard Dane Goodwin) who gave you something on the offensive end on the bench at the end.
A second home league loss without a win dropped Notre Dame to 10-6 overall, 1-4 in the ACC. Three of those league losses are by a combined nine points. The Irish have lost their two league home games by a combined four points. Both were getable. At the end of 40 minutes, both were regrettable. It’s more of the same for a team that often talks of poise, particularly under pressure, but one that doesn’t always play with it.
Like at the end. Notre Dame had the ball in a one-possession game and the chance to get within one with a quick bucket, or maybe even tie it with a 3. The Irish drained all of the final 35.2 seconds and never did get a clean look, a good look, a high-percentage look.
T.J. Gibbs dribbled some seconds away. Rex Pflueger dribbled some seconds away. John Mooney tried to ball screen. For no one. Prentiss Hubb got to the rim with 7.6 remaining but left it short. Mooney wound up with the ball and three seconds left, but his desperation chance from the wing didn’t have a prayer.
“When we’re down three and 23 seconds left, we can get a quick two so we were looking for that,” Mooney said. “That didn’t happen.”
Nothing really did. Notre Dame looked unorganized and unsure when it needed to be sure and steady. Do they even practice game situations? After Saturday, who could be sure.
Irish coach Mike Brey decided against calling a timeout that might settle everything down and set something up. Even if he could have stopped the clock to get Goodwin in the game, that might have mattered. He chose to let it play out. When it was over, Brey wished that he’d had gotten Goodwin in the game. He also stressed that in no way was the game decided on those frantic and futile seconds.
“We lost it before the final possession,” Brey said. “Game was freaking over.”
Over because two bad defensive possessions by an Irish outfit that had been pretty good on that end for the second half, doomed this one. Both possessions resulted in 3-pointers from Dwayne Sutton, a 36.4 shooter from 3 this season. His first one dropped the Irish in a one-point hole with 3:21 left. His second one put them down 3 with 1:58 left. Up by as many as four with 5:27 remaining, you could almost see the collective shoulders of the Irish sag.
“Just gotta finish those games,” Goodwin said.
Finish them by doing something that’s going to get this group to believe. Get those two stops and they believe. Get Hubb to drop in a 3 in front of the Irish bench with the home team up seven and under five minutes remaining and they believe. Instead, his shot doesn’t drop and the stops don’t surface. Belief then slips out the arena’s back door.
“We’re going to have to make those plays to do it,” Brey said.
Still, the Irish had chances at the end. Be better in the final possession, and maybe the outcome is different. Maybe they’re playing one or two or five overtimes like these teams did back in 2013. Maybe the Irish escape with a needed league home win. But a team that has talked of being so poised in close contests really hasn’t been all season, save for at Syracuse.
Would’ve been nice to see some of that Saturday.
There have been plenty of tough league losses to take over the last year-plus. Lopsided losses. Close losses. Losses to unranked teams. Losses to ranked teams. Saturday’s setback really stings. It showed that yeah, Notre Dame can compete. What it can’t consistently do is close out games to sustain success in this league. Notre Dame won on the road the previous Saturday. Couldn’t win at home in this one. One step forward, two steps back. Again.
That inconsistency’s on everyone to be better. The head coach. The seniors. The sophomores. This program’s long been one that found ways to figure it out for games and weeks and months at a time. Now?
“There’s always time in this league to do something,” Brey said.
Maybe not enough.
LOUISVILLE (13-3): Nwora 7-15 2-2 20, Sutton 4-11 0-0 10, McMahon 6-10 2-2 17, M.Williams 3-8 0-0 6, Kimble 3-4 0-0 6, Perry 0-2 1-2 1, Enoch 1-8 0-0 2, Johnson 2-4 1-2 5, Williamson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-62 6-8 67.
NOTRE DAME (10-6): Gibbs 6-8 2-2 15, Hubb 3-14 0-0 8, Mooney 7-18 0-1 15, Pflueger 2-8 0-0 6, Goodwin 5-10 0-0 14, Durham 2-6 0-0 4, Laszewski 1-2 0-0 2, Djogo 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 26-67 2-3 64.
Halftime_Louisville 36-24. 3-Point Goals_Louisville 9-20 (Nwora 4-8, McMahon 3-5, Sutton 2-3, Enoch 0-1, Johnson 0-1, Perry 0-1, M.Williams 0-1), Notre Dame 10-31 (Goodwin 4-8, Pflueger 2-5, Hubb 2-10, Gibbs 1-2, Mooney 1-5, Djogo 0-1). Rebounds_Louisville 37 (Sutton 14), Notre Dame 36 (Mooney 19). Assists_Louisville 14 (Kimble 4), Notre Dame 17 (Hubb 8). Total Fouls_Louisville 13, Notre Dame 9.