He was fine until he had to go to the line, which turned a bust-out night into a frustrating few moments for Notre Dame power forward John Mooney.
Playing against an Atlantic Coast Conference blueblood (North Carolina) in one of the league’s most iconic venues (Dean Smith Center) Mooney connected on all six of his 3-point attempts for a then-career high 18 points. He logged a career-high 32 minutes off the bench. He was good. He was rolling.
Trailing by as many as 10 in the second half, the Irish had crept within four when Mooney was fouled shooting a 3. He had the chance to shave the deficit to one with three free throws and 7:10 remaining.
Mooney missed the first one, missed the second one and, not surprisingly given the situation and his percentage from the foul line (.531), missed the third. Mooney left the arena after the 83-66 loss vowing to be better the next game, the next week, the next month, the next season.
He’s been all that and more.
As Notre Dame (11-5; 1-2 ACC) returns Tuesday to the Smith Center to face No. 13 North Carolina (12-4; 2-1), Mooney’s become a beast of a big in the ACC. On a team that’s struggled with consistency, the 6-foot-9, 245-pound junior from Orlando, Fla., has been sure and steady and ready.
Fresh from a career-high 27 points to go with 12 rebounds in a career-high 39 minutes in Saturday’s victory over Boston College, Mooney should have earned his first league player of the week honor, something someone from Duke usually has a stranglehold on for much of the season.
Somehow, that honor went to Dwayne Sutton from Louisville, which beat North Carolina at North Carolina but opened the week by losing in overtime …. at Pittsburgh. Not necessarily player of the week worthy.
Jerian Grant can sympathize with Mooney’s snub by the ACC, but we digress.
Regardless of the vote, nobody in the league may be playing as well as Mooney.
“It’s just my confidence at an all-time high now,” said Mooney, who has a league-best eight double doubles for points and rebounds. “These guys expected me to kind of go out there and set the tone. It’s a tremendous honor to be in this situation.”
Irish coach Mike Brey could see in summer that Mooney was setting up for a special season. Just watching the way he carried himself in individual workouts, then again in team settings, Mooney was going to have a stronger say in about everything the Irish did. He made shots. He grabbed rebounds. He competed. Every day.
“It’s been even better than I thought,” Brey said.
Mooney also has become more of a voice. It’s been so strong that when former power forward Elijah Burns left the program after four games, Brey and his staff wasted little time naming Mooney a captain. He’s since played like one. In seven games as a captain, Mooney has averaged 16.1 points and 10.0 rebounds.
“Johnny Mooney continues to be a flat-out man and put on a show,” Brey said.
That show Saturday consisted of scoring and rebounding and playing all but 60 seconds, but it was what Mooney did when the ball wasn’t in play that most mattered. One team captain, Rex Pflueger, was tucked behind the Irish bench having undergone reconstructive surgery on his left knee the previous morning. Another team captain, junior guard T.J. Gibbs, wasn’t even in the building after experiencing a migraine-like headache and flu-like symptoms minutes before tip.
That necessitated a starting lineup featuring three freshmen, something that last happened 19 years ago for Notre Dame and never on Mike Brey’s watch. Going so young left all the heavy lifting captain stuff to one guy — Mooney. He needed to be the steadiest and strongest voice. He needed to be the old man.
Then he was. He gathered the starting five, which also included sophomore swingman D.J. Harvey, near midcourt in front of the scorer’s table before the opening tip, then again prior to the start of the second half. He did the talking. During breaks in game action, Mooney continued to talk. When it was time to get the Purcell Pavilion crowd off their hands and make some noise, well, Mooney made sure of that too, furiously waving his arms to roust them.
The running list of Irish who’ve had breakout junior seasons is lengthy. Tim Abromaitis did it. So did Zach Auguste and Jack Cooley and Martinas Geben. Ty Nash and Carleton Scott. Now Mooney’s doing it, maybe at a level higher than any of those guys.
Last year, Mooney averaged 5.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 0.5 assists in 15.4 minutes. In 16 games with 16 starts this year, Mooney is averaging 13.6 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 26.1 minutes. He’s shooting .538 from the field, .472 from 3 and .793 from the foul line.
He’s been the one Irish who hasn’t been injured or ill or inconsistent. Through so much uncertainty, he’s been steady. The Irish still may be undermanned, but that’s no excuse to offer an undermanned effort.
Mooney makes sure of it.
“It’s definitely tough, but nobody’s feeling bad for us,” said Mooney. “We’ve got to play with what we’ve got. We just gotta play and outwork the team we play.
“We’re a confident group right now.”
Where would Notre Dame be now without Mooney? It’s a question nobody thought needed to be asked when the season started. It’s now nobody wants to ask.