Notre Dame basketball notebook: Loss to Gaels won't help Irish resume

David Woods
Indianapolis Star
St. Mary's guard Alex Ducas drives past Notre Dame forward Nate Laszewski (14) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Maui Invitational in Las Vegas, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

LAS VEGAS — Notre Dame is old.

Saint Mary’s is older. And, as it turns out, better. Barely.

Saint Mary’s shoved Notre Dame to the consolation bracket of the Maui Invitational, winning 62-59 in a college basketball game that was equal parts chess match and cage match late Monday night.

Even in this sport, it is rare for a game to be so close for so long. The teams were never separated by more than three points — one possession — in the second half. There were 16 lead changes and 10 ties after Saint Mary’s bolted ahead 7-0.

“It’s a game you’ll remember the rest of your life, for coaches and players,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bannett said.

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The Fighting Irish (2-1) must forget quickly as they prepare for Tuesday’s game against Chaminade, the Division II host from Hawaii. Because of the pandemic, this tournament was moved to Mandalay Bay’s Michelob Ultra Arena.

Notre Dame had won championships in each of its past four in-season tournaments.

After missing the past four NCAA tournaments, the Irish (2-1) need to build their resume, and they can leave Las Vegas with no more than one quality victory. That is, if Monday losers Texas A&M and Butler turn out to have any quality.

Notre Dame led 58-57 until the Gaels’ Dan Fotu sank a corner 3-pointer with 49 seconds left. That capped a career-high 22-point night for the New Zealander.

“I didn’t see the shot. I heard a big roar from our crowd,” Bennett said, “so I knew it went in.”

St. Mary's guard Logan Johnson (0) drives on Notre Dame guard Blake Wesley during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Maui Invitational in Las Vegas, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Notre Dame’s Cormac Ryan was fouled on a drive with seven seconds left. Ryan, with 78% career accuracy, made the first but missed the second. So the Irish trailed 60-59.

The Gaels’ Tommy Kuhse made two free throws with four seconds left to make it 62-59. Ryan’s rushed 3-point attempt to tie never reached the rim.

Ryan scored 16 points, including three 3s and a jump shot that tied the score at 31 before halftime.

“I feel for Cormac. He gave us every chance to win the game,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “He’s beside himself about the free throw.”

St. Mary's guard Alex Ducas (44) drives on Notre Dame guard Trey Wertz during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Maui Invitational in Las Vegas, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

The Irish have an experienced roster, too, but can’t match Saint Mary’s. The Gaels were one of two teams in the country to return all 13 scholarship players.

“They’re further ahead than us. They’ve been together longer,” Brey said. “And they did it for 40 minutes.”

Offense a work in progress

Defense has not been a hallmark of Brey teams. The Irish have not been in the top 50 in defensive efficiency (according to KenPom.com) since 2008.

So it is unusual for Brey to be more vexed about the offense.

“I like how we’re moving and wanting to work defensively,” he said. “We made great strides there. We needed to improve immensely.

“I’m still figuring out how to help us offensively.”

Paul Atkinson Jr., a former Ivy League co-player of the year from Yale, scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half. 

Notre Dame was limited to 39% shooting, and 41% on two-pointers (15-of-36).

“Knowing how good we can be, offensively and defensively, and just trusting each other and continuing to be ourselves and to stay within ourselves is a big key for us,” Ryan said.

‘Weapon-ize’ Wesley

Freshman guard Blake Wesley scored five points on 2-of-8 shooting in 18 minutes off the bench. His three-game average is 10.0.

“Blake Wesley is starting to become a really important guy for us,” Brey said. “Trying to figure out how to weapon-ize him more.”

It was Wesley’s first college game outside his South Bend hometown.

“To be thrown in, playing against 22-year-old guys, I was very impressed,” Brey said. “Made some big plays for us.”

Brey acknowledged he wants senior guard Prentis Hubb to get untracked, too. Hubb, a 14.6 scorer last season, had six points against Saint Mary’s and just 14 in three games.

“He doesn’t have to force plays. We have enough guys that can go do something,” Brey said. “And that’s new for him. We’re going to need him to score and make some shots. And I think he’s gong to get some open looks because this group does pass it well and find each other.”

West is best

Saint Mary’s (5-0) has contributed to brand-building in the West Coast Conference. The Gaels will meet Oregon in a Maui semifinal.

No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 18 BYU, Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara and San Francisco are a collective 25-0 so far.

Contact IndyStar reporter David Woods at david.woods@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.