UPDATE: Notre Dame men’s basketball: Irish can’t slow North Dakota State

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Confident, cohesive and competitive for nearly the entire 40 minutes Wednesday, a team with an N and a D in its initials rolled into Purcell Pavilion and made it all look easy.

It wasn’t Notre Dame.

Playing old and poised and oblivious to anything the other team might do or any run it might muster – traits that the home team has long owned in its building — North Dakota State did as it pleased for much of a frustrating night for Notre Dame, which ended in a 73-69 loss.

“We didn’t get key stops when we needed to and we didn’t knock down the open looks that we usually do,” said junior co-captain Pat Connaughton. “It’s tough to give up 73 points, almost 40 of them in the first half, and expect to win when you’re not hitting your shots.”

North Dakota State set the stage for this one by shooting 58.3 percent from the field and 71.4 percent (5-of-7) from 3 in the first half. That got an already confident team feeling really good about its chances, and kept an Irish team still searching this season for a direction wondering. … and worrying.

“They got confident early,” Connaughton said. “When you get confident early, they hit shots. They hit tough shots at the end of the game.”

An Irish offense that seemingly was on cruise control following Saturday’s victory over Delaware when it scored at least 80 points for the fifth consecutive game, has since sputtered. Badly. The Irish needed a whole bunch of late free throws two nights earlier against Bryant to get to 70 and never did visit that number Wednesday.

Notre Dame shot 35.7 percent from the field, 31 percent from 3 (9-of-29).

“Our offensive efficiency, just not good enough to beat a good team,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “You’re going to have to score to get out of there.”

The loss marked the first time in 10 seasons – since 2003-04 – that the Irish have lost two non-conference home games. Notre Dame (7-3) lost last month to Indiana State, a team that could challenge for the Missouri Valley Conference championship. North Dakota State (7-3) has designs on the Summit League title and a trip to the NCAA tournament.

“I was very worried about this one,” Brey said. “My worst fears came true. They’re a very good, old, experienced team.”

Notre Dame also is an old, experienced team. But very good? Not yet.

“It was just one of those nights,” said power forward Garrick Sherman, who finished with a second double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) in as many games.

Other than a spurt here or there, the Irish seldom looked like they would figure it out thanks to the low-post work of North Dakota State big man Marshall Bjorklund. Able to get the ball deep, deep, deep in the lane, Bjorklund had numerous high-percentage looks that he dropped in with seemingly little effort. Bjorklund scored a game-high 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting.

“He’s just good with his body,” Sherman said. “He had a lot of space and their shooters starting hitting shots and we couldn’t sag off, so it was just one-on-one.”

It didn’t matter what Irish big man tried to defend Bjorklund – Tom Knight, Sherman, an occasional double team – the Irish never could slow him. Notre Dame opened by sagging off the Bison shooters and trying to double Bjorklund. Once North Dakota State hit five 3s, that plan was tossed on the scrap heap.

Bjorklund entered Wednesday’ game ranked third in the NCAA in field goal percentage at 69.7 percent. He then shot 78.5 percent.

“We’ve got a really good post player in Fargo, North Dakota,” said Bison coach Saul Phillips. “He does that to a lot of people.”

Except for a handful of possessions late when the Irish went to two bigs (Knight and Sherman) and a 2/3 zone, it was one-on-one for much of the second half.

“Having shooters on our team, it really spreads out the court,” Bjorklund said. “When I’m able to go one-on-one I feel pretty confident doing that no matter who’s playing defense.

“I’ve always felt comfortable down there.”

Despite all the starts and stops and missed shots, Notre Dame had chances. But the Irish couldn’t do what they’ve long been able to do at home – make a shot, hit a free throw, get a stop, catch a confident wave at the right time and ride it out in their gym.

The Irish came up empty in all areas.

“You’ve got to be a little better offensively to escape them,” Brey said.

Two nights earlier against Bryant, Notre Dame won by 11 points by making 10 consecutive free throws over the final 61 seconds. Down three with just under three minutes remaining Wednesday, Notre Dame twice went to the foul line in a two-second span.

Eric Atkins missed on the front end of his one-and-one. Knight then couldn’t connect on his first offering. North Dakota State answered with a Trayvonn Wright hook shot to bump the Bison back up by five before Connaughton’s 3 made it a two-point game.

Notre Dame got within one in the closing seconds, but never could get more. Leading scorer Jerian Grant, who had been so good all season, never got going. Hounded by the Bison guards and unable to solve the pack-it-in defense, Grant labored to an 0-for-5 showing from the field. All nine of his points came at the foul line.

“He couldn’t really get any angles to the bucket,” Brey said. “He was starting to really flow because he was kicking to shooters like he usually does.

“We just couldn’t make the shots.”

North Dakota State did, and will bottle all the buzz created by its first victory in school history over an Atlantic Coast Conference team.

“This will do wonders for us; that’s great,” Phillips said. “Believe me, we’ll take advantage.

“Pretty cool.”

N. DAKOTA ST. (73): Mike Felt 0-2 0-0 0, Lawrence Alexander 5-14 4-5 16, Carlin Dupree 2-2 0-0 4, Kory Brown 1-2 1-2 3, Taylor Braun 3-6 5-6 13, Trayvonn Wright 4-11 0-0 9, Chris Kading 0-0 0-0 0, Marshall Bjorklund 11-14 4-6 26, Jordan Aaberg 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 27-53 14-19 73.

NOTRE DAME (69): Garrick Sherman 3-9 4-4 10, Eric Atkins 4-8 4-5 12, Jerian Grant 0-5 9-11 9, Demetrius Jackson 3-7 2-2 11, Pat Connaughton 8-21 0-0 21, Austin Burgett 0-1 0-0 0, Tom Knight 1-3 1-3 3, Steve Vasturia 1-2 0-0 3. Totals 20-56 20-25 69.

Halftime — N. Dakota St. 39-37. 3-Point Goals — N. Dakota St. 5-10 (Braun 2-3, Alexander 2-4, Wright 1-2, Felt 0-1), Notre Dame 9-29 (Connaughton 5-15, Jackson 3-6, Vasturia 1-2, Burgett 0-1, Atkins 0-2, Grant 0-3). Fouled Out — Bjorklund. Rebounds — N. Dakota St. 33 (Alexander 14), Notre Dame 32 (Sherman 10). Assists — N. Dakota St. 13 (Bjorklund 4), Notre Dame 16 (Grant 5). Total Fouls — N. Dakota St. 19, Notre Dame 15. A — 7,662.

TNoie@SBTinfo.com

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Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton (24) moves by North Dakota State's TrayVonn Wright during an Wednesday night's game at Purcell Pavilion.