One short shot, not enough stops doom Notre Dame hoops in ACC loss

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH – A ridiculous run of conference comebacks and success finally came to a conclusion Saturday for No. 8 Notre Dame at unranked Pittsburgh.

This time, the other guys made the plays when required to win a close one.

Able to erase an eight-point deficit with 3:05 remaining before taking a one-point lead with 31.2 seconds left, the Irish fell one shot and a whole lot of stops short. And that shot rolled around and was halfway down before bouncing back out in a 76-72 loss at the Petersen Events Center.

“When it comes down to game situations like that, we have total confidence we’re going to come out with a win,” said Irish guard Jerian Grant.

Except this time, they didn’t.

Notre Dame saw its five-game Atlantic Coast Conference win streak snapped. The Irish (20-3, 8-2) had won 16 of their previous 17 games and had lost only once – to No. 2 Virginia – the previous 69 days. It’s also their first road loss in league play after opening with four straight wins.

Demetrius Jackson led the Irish with 15 points. Grant, who scored the final 10 Irish points over the final 6:37, added 14.

“It was one of those games where I think we deserved to lose by 15,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “Our defense hurt us today. We could never get enough stops to really win the game.”

Notre Dame has lost three games this season by a combined 11 points.

Jamel Artis led the Panthers (14-8, 4-5) with 19 points.

“This game,” Artis said, “was a statement.”

“This,” Michael Young said, “should be enough to get us going.”

Pittsburgh had lost its previous three league games, including Tuesday in overtime to previously-winless Virginia Tech.

Quiet for a long stretch of the game, Grant finally got going with under seven minutes remaining. His personal 8-0 scoring run drew the Irish within one. And when he connected on two free throws with 31.2 seconds left, the visitors were up one, 72-71, and one possession away from stealing it.

“If you were going to steal it,” Brey said, “you had to steal it after Jerian’s free throws.”

Grant fouled his DeMatha (Md.) High School buddy, James Robinson, with under a minute remaining, which seNt Pitt to the foul line. But one of the league’s best free throw shooters (84.4 percent) missed the front end of the one-and-one with the Irish down one.

Robinson later returned with a bucket to make it 73-72. Still, the Irish had a chance.

A Steve Vasturia 3 from the same spot he stuck one three nights earlier to help bet Duke, rolled around, halfway down and jumped out before a Pat Connaughton foul sent the Panthers back to the line with six seconds left, and the Irish to a rare loss.

Grant, as he did in the closing seconds against Duke, delivered the pass to Vasturia. Like the other night, he figured it was in.

“I almost didn’t even go to the glass and just turned around,” he said. “It rimmed out.”

For one of the few times in January, the Irish didn’t trail by double digits in a league game. But also for one of the few times in league play, Notre Dame’s defense just wasn’t good enough.

A Jackson drive tied the game at 7:48 and seemingly should have given the Irish some momentum to close this one out, but their defense constantly let them down. Second-half defense had been a standard staple for the Irish in recent games, but not Saturday. Pittsburgh connected on seven of its first 10 shots to start the second half and looked to get anything it wanted, and at any time.

Those handful of stops that helped earlier this week against North Carolina State and Duke, just never surfaced.

Pittsburgh shot a season-best 58.5 percent from the field.

“We just weren’t doing it,” Jackson said of the lack of pressure and presence. “We need to be more disciplined in our defense. It wasn’t there today.”

The Irish had won in their previous two trips to the Pete, but Saturday was their first visit as an ACC foe. They shot 56 percent in the first half and led by one at the break, then went up by five in the opening minutes of the final 20.

Getting off to good start to avoid another deep hole had been a constant concern much of the month for the Irish, who had trailed by double digits in six of their last eight league games.

Pittsburgh promptly hit its first five shots and led by five three times before the first television timeout. Less than three minutes after trailing by five, the Irish took their first lead on a Vasturia drive.

A 12-2 run, capped by a V.J. Beachem 3, gave the Irish a seven-point lead. The Irish were right there much of the first half thanks to getting easy drives down the lane for layups. Eleven of their 14 first-half baskets came in the paint. The other three were 3s.

Brey continued to consider himself the “loosest coach in America” for much of a challenging month, and he was all that in the hours leading into Saturday’s game. Following an afternoon charter flight to town Friday, the Irish held an early-evening workout at Petersen Events Center. That saw Brey wander over to a corner of the arena where the Pittsburgh band resides during games, sit down behind a drum kit and bang out a quick beat.

Notre Dame returns to action Wednesday at home against Boston College. The game opens the final full month of the regular season, one that will offer the Irish plenty of chances to rest their legs. Only six games – three at home, three on the road – highlight February for Notre Dame, which also gets a six-day break from game action in the middle of the month. Another layoff of seven days arrives as February becomes March, when it might really get interesting.

NOTRE DAME (20-3): Demetrius Jackson 6-11 2-4 15, Jerian Grant 4-9 5-7 14, Pat Connaughton 2-4 3-3 8, Zach Auguste 6-10 0-0 12, Steve Vasturia 5-8 0-0 12, V.J. Beachem 2-4 3-4 9, Bonzie Colson 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 26-49 13-18 72.

PITTSBURGH (14-8): :James Robinson 5-8 3-5 15, Jamel Artis 8-14 4-4 20, Michael Young 7-10 2-2 16, Cameron Wright 7-9 0-0 14, Josh Newkirk 2-6 0-0 6, Ryan Luther 0-0 0-0 0, Derrick Randall 0-0 0-0 0, Chris Jones 2-6 1-3 5, Sheldon Jeter 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 31-53 10-14 76.

Halftime: -Notre Dame 38-37. 3-Point Goals--Notre Dame 7-18 (Beachem 2-3, Vasturia 2-4, Connaughton 1-3, Jackson 1-4, Grant 1-4), Pittsburgh 4-8 (Robinson 2-2, Newkirk 2-3, Artis 0-1, Jones 0-2). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Notre Dame 23 (Auguste 7), Pittsburgh 27 (Artis 8). Assists--Notre Dame 11 (Grant 3), Pittsburgh 24 (Robinson 10). Total Fouls--Notre Dame 15, Pittsburgh 15. A--12,508.

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Notre Dame's Jerian Grant, right, defends as Pittsburgh's Josh Newkirk (13) shoots in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Notre Dame power forward Zach Auguste looks to pass as Pittsburgh's Derrick Randall defends during Saturday's game.AP Photo/KEITH SRAKOCIC