ND men fall short in Carolina

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

//

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — They really had no business hanging around in the second half of a game they were never in early, not this undermanned outfit that absorbed more than their share of setbacks away from home in their new league.

But there they were, looking for a way to make a play and steal one against a team that hadn’t lost the previous 41 days and counting.

Just when everyone figured Notre Dame was down and all but out, the Irish threw a jab and a hook, but they could never land a knockout punch Monday against No. 14 North Carolina.

Good on both ends for a long stretch in the second half, the Irish fell a play short in a 63-61 loss at the Dean Smith Center.

“This whole year, we haven’t been able to close things down down the stretch,” said Irish guard Eric Atkins. “It’s really on us to get it done.”

The Tar Heels (23-7, 13-4) have won 12 straight games after opening ACC play 1-4.

“We really haven’t accomplished anything yet,” said coach Roy Williams. “We’ve really bounced back and played some inspired basketball.”

Down five with 1:26 remaining, the Irish got within two on a Pat Connaughton drive and free throw. Down three with under 10 seconds left, an Atkins drive made it a one-point game. A Marcus Paige free throw bumped it to 63-61 with 6.6 seconds remaining. With the Irish owning no timeouts, Atkins rushed the ball down the floor, got a big-time ball screen near midcourt from Tom Knight and had three options as the clock was ready to expire.

He could drive and kick out for a 3 if the defense collapsed, but he didn’t like that look. He could pull up for a flip shot or get all the way to the rim and see how that unfolded. Atkins chose door No. 3 and figured he had a clean look at a potential game-tying shot. As it went up, it was sent back out by Paige before the clock fell to zero.

Game over.

Regular season over for the Irish (15-16, 6-12).

“I thought I just had a clean layup,” Atkins said. “I probably should have pulled up.”

Irish coach Mike Brey disagreed.

“The way Eric was getting to the basket, that was a pretty good read,” he said. “We got him freed up at halfcourt.”

It marked the first time since 2008-09 (8-10) that Notre Dame finished with a losing record in league play. It’s the most league losses for the Irish since going 4-14 in the Big East in 1995-96.

Atkins led the Irish with 21 points. Playing on a bum left ankle sprained two days earlier against Pittsburgh, Pat Connaughton added 17 points and 13 rebounds.

“I thought Eric Atkins was sensational and I thought Pat was tough,” Williams said.

After allowing 41 points in the first half, which tied an ACC season high for an opponent, the Irish defense dug in and delivered one of the season’s best efforts. Less than six minutes remained in the game, and the high-flying Tar Heels had only nine second-half points.

Notre Dame jumped to a diamond-and-one on Paige, who could go and do where and as he pleased in the teams’ first meeting last month.

The rare defensive look forced someone else in Tar Heel blue and white to take and make a shot. And for a long time, no one could.

“We did a good job getting one-and-dones,” Atkins said.

A massive 22-5 scoring run over a 6:48 period helped the Irish turn a 14-point halftime deficit into a three-point lead following a Zach Auguste bucket with 13:12 left. That score followed Connaughton going for 10 straight to start the half before Atkins hit for seven in a row as the Smith Center crowd grew more quiet with each passing possession.

“It’s something to build on, and it’s something we’ve been trying to build on throughout the season,” Connaughton said. “We’ve been in a bunch of these games that we lost, and it’s something we’ve got to take with us to Greensboro and get over the hump.”

Once Auguste scored, Atkins thought the Irish just might steal this one.

“I was really feeling like we had a great chance to win this game,” Atkins said. “And we (almost) did.”

Notre Dame then was its own worst enemy. Bad offense — turnovers, missed shots, shot-clock violations — forced the Irish to labor seven minutes without a point. Steve Vasturia finally stopped the slide with a free throw. A two-handed dunk by Knight tied it at 52 and it was on to late-game execution.

The Irish fielded their 12th different starting lineup Monday, necessitated by the absence of fifth-year senior captain Garrick Sherman, who aggravated a right pinkie finger injury in Saturday’s overtime loss at home to Pittsburgh. Notre Dame hopes Sherman can return in time for next week’s ACC Tournament.

“It popped out twice against Pittsburgh and he’s just not effective,” Brey said. “If we can get him a week of rest, I think we can calm that down before we go to Greensboro.”

Brey also hopes to give Connaughton at least five days off after playing on an ankle that was probably too sore to go. But there really was no choice.

“That’s a man,” Brey said, “cause he was hurting today.”

Connaughton took a few Motrin, then played 37 minutes. How was the ankle afterward?

“It’s kind of numb,” he said. “Throbbing a little bit.”

Fifteen wins this regular season are the fewest for Notre Dame since it won 14 in 1998-99, also the same season that it last finished with a losing record (14-16) and failed to qualify for postseason play.

Adjusting to ACC play away from home was difficult this season for Notre Dame. After winning 14 road games over their final three seasons in the Big East, the Irish staggered to a 1-8 road mark in the ACC, winning only at Boston College in mid-February.

Monday marked the first time Brey coached in the Smith Center in 20 years.

“There’s been some great road atmospheres we’ve played in,” Brey said. “This one was fabulous. They do an unbelievable job here.”

Next up for Notre Dame is a league-mandated bye week, its first and only one of the regular season. The Irish return to game action eight days from now in the first round of the ACC Tournament. If the season ended today, Notre Dame would be the No. 12 seed and face No. 13 Georgia Tech in the tournament’s first game at 1 p.m.

Notre Dame and Georgia Tech split its two matchups this year.

NOTRE DAME (15-16): Eric Atkins 9-17 1-4 21, Austin Burgett 1-3 0-0 3, Pat Connaughton 7-13 2-3 17, Zach Auguste 3-8 0-1 6, Steve Vasturia 4-8 1-2 11, V.J. Beachem 0-1 1-2 1, Demetrius Jackson 0-0 0-0 0, Tom Knight 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 25-52 5-12 61.

NORTH CAROLINA (23-7): Leslie McDonald 2-8 0-0 5, James Manor 0-0 0-0 0, Denzel Robinson 0-0 0-0 0, James McAdoo 5-14 4-9 14, Wade Moody 1-1 0-0 3, Nate Britt 2-3 0-0 4, Kennedy Meeks 2-4 1-2 5, Marcus Paige 2-8 2-4 7, Brice Johnson 4-9 1-3 9, J.P. Tokoto 5-5 1-1 11, Desmond Hubert 0-0 0-2 0, Isaiah Hicks 0-0 0-0 0, Joel James 2-2 1-1 5. Totals 25-54 10-22 63.

Halftime — North Carolina 41-27. 3-Point Goals — Notre Dame 6-19 (Vasturia 2-6, Atkins 2-6, Connaughton 1-3, Burgett 1-3, Beachem 0-1), North Carolina 3-12 (Moody 1-1, Paige 1-5, McDonald 1-6). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — Notre Dame 30 (Connaughton 13), North Carolina 35 (McAdoo 9). Assists — Notre Dame 8 (Atkins 6), North Carolina 17 (Paige 6). Total Fouls — Notre Dame 20, North Carolina 16. A — 15,175.

Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

North Carolina's James Michael McAdoo, left, and Notre Dame's Austin Burgett reach for a loose ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Monday, March 3, 2014. (AP Photo/GERRY BROOME)
Notre Dame freshman V.J. Beachem (3) moves by Clemson's Jaron Blossomgame (5) during the Notre Dame-Clemson game on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN