Notre Dame men's basketball: Irish go cold, lose mojo

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Scabbed over from sometime earlier this basketball season sits a floor burn on the left knee of Notre Dame senior captain Eric Atkins.

Too few accumulated by anyone in gold on a night they needed more of them saw the Irish take a step back from an opportunity to feel really good really early in Atlantic Coast Conference play.

Unable to do the tough stuff on either end at key times in a conference contest, Notre Dame failed to build on Saturday’s upset of Duke and dropped to 1-1 in the league with a 77-70 loss to North Carolina State.

It’s the first time since 2009-10 that Notre Dame (10-5) has lost at least three games at Purcell Pavilion. And a “State” team — Indiana, North Dakota and North Carolina — has done it every time.

And every time, it was decided by those handful of second-half possessions on both ends — get a stop; make a shot — which the Irish didn’t make that helped decide it.

“It really comes down to little things like that,” said Atkins, who had 14 points and five assists. “That was a big key to the game — loose balls, rebounding. They got all the little things. That comes down to toughness.

“They were tougher when it counted.”

On Tuesday, that meant not being able to ever get into a good offensive flow. Notre Dame would get a big basket — a Pat Connaughton 3, a Garrick Sherman rebound follow, something from Atkins — only to falter the next time down with a critical turnover.

“We dribbled it too much,” Atkins said. “We need to get back to cutting and moving.”

Sherman finished with the fourth double-double of his career and this season with a game-high 21 points and a career-high 18 rebounds. Connaughton added 15 points, all on 3-pointers. But the Irish never could get a fourth player into the scoring scene. And for one of the few times this season, their freshmen looked like freshmen.

“Tonight, for the first night, you kind of saw a little bit of growing pains of this group,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “Our young guys played young tonight. Our young guys actually looked their age.”

That included former Marian guard Demetrius Jackson, who finished with more turnovers (three) than points (two). Jackson played 23 minutes, but never seemed involved. He compounded a tough night by passing up an open baseline shot and then turning it over late in a close game in the second half.

Brey has never asked Jackson to go for big scoring nights — at least not yet — in his collegiate career. But he has to be better than what he was Tuesday. Every night.

“He’s such a great student; you’ve got to coach him,” Brey said. “He can overanalyze a little bit. I just want him to play and play with a free mind.

“There’s nights he’s done that beautifully and there’s nights he’s been young.”

With the Irish down by as many as nine in the second half, a Steve Vasturia corner 3 made it 69-66, with 1:29 left. The defense then held but couldn’t secure the loose ball. That gave it back to North Carolina State with 48.9 seconds and a fresh shot clock. Sherman fouled T.J. Warren before the inbound pass. Warren hit two free throws to put the Wolfpack back up by five.

Sherman responded with a lay-in to make it a three-point game with 42 seconds left and it was on to free throws to decide this one.

North Carolina State decided it by going 16-of-20 from the foul line in the second half.

“I like that our guys showed some resiliency,” Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said. “For us, this was a great bounce-back win.”

Warren led the Wolfpack (11-4; 1-1) with 17 points.

This was a night when no combination of lineups the Irish tried seemed to work. They couldn’t get into any offensive rhythm, couldn’t guard, couldn’t get a stop, couldn’t get going. A deficit that had been three at half swelled to nine in less than four minutes.

“We didn’t play as hard as we played on Saturday,” Connaughton said. “As a team, we can’t put ourselves in these situations when we’re trying to claw back from seven, eight points in the second half.”

Just under four minutes remained when Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” rolled over the sound system. The Irish were down five at that point and likely wondering.

“Especially for our group right now, the margin for error is going to be really, really small,” Brey said.

Winning Tuesday was paramount for Notre Dame, which plays four of its next five league games on the road starting Saturday with its first ACC road game against Georgia Tech. Tech fell to 0-2 in the league Tuesday with a 79-57 loss at Duke.

The first half featured seven ties and six lead changes. No team led by more than four. A Sherman flip shot tied it at 36 before freshman guard Anthony Barber, a McDonald’s All-American last spring, tossed in a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to make it 39-36 Wolfpack.

“It gave us life,” Gottfried said.

It was a sluggish first half for the Irish because their bigs didn’t play big. Brey burned through combination after combination looking for a pairing to click. It reached such a point of frustration that coordinator of basketball operations Harold Swanagan jumped off the Irish bench all hot and bothered by the Irish bigs’ inability to get a rebound.

At one point, State held a 23-13 rebounding advantage.

“Their size around the basket,” Brey said, “bothered us.”

Set up by a Jackson steal and spin dribble before finding Atkins, Zach Auguste gave the home fans something to feel good about with a lob dunk to give the Irish a 26-25 lead at the 6:27 mark. That advantage lasted 29 seconds before the Wolfpack responded with four unanswered points.

The Irish led only once more — for all of 23 seconds — the final 24 minutes.

“We could never get three offensive possessions to tie it, or to make it interesting,” Brey said. “We’re still kind of figuring it out.”

NC STATE (11-4): Warren 6-17 5-6 17, Washington 2-4 1-1 5, Vandenberg 2-4 0-0 4, Barber 4-12 7-8 16, Lee 3-10 5-6 12, Freeman 2-3 1-3 5, Lewis 1-2 0-0 2, Anya 1-1 2-3 4, Turner 3-5 4-5 12. Totals 24-58 25-32 77.

NOTRE DAME (10-5): Zach Auguste 4-8 1-3 9, Garrick Sherman 9-19 3-3 21, Eric Atkins 5-15 3-4 14, Demetrius Jackson 1-3 0-0 2, Pat Connaughton 5-12 0-0 15, VJ Beachem 0-0 0-0 0, Austin Burgett 0-2 0-0 0, Tom Knight 2-4 0-0 4, Steve Vasturia 1-3 2-2 5. Totals 27-66 9-12 70.

Halftime — NC State 39-36. 3-Point Goals — NC State 4-13 (Turner 2-3, Barber 1-2, Lee 1-4, Lewis 0-1, Warren 0-3), Notre Dame 7-24 (Connaughton 5-11, Vasturia 1-2, Atkins 1-8, Jackson 0-1, Burgett 0-2). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — NC State 39 (Vandenberg 11), Notre Dame 37 (Sherman 18). Assists — NC State 12 (Lewis 4), Notre Dame 14 (Atkins 5). Total Fouls — NC State 11, Notre Dame 21. A — 7,721.

Notre Dame guard/forward Pat Connaughton, left, forces a five-second violation on North Carolina State guard Desmond Lee (5) during the first half of a NCAA mens college basketball game on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, at the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER via FTP