Syracuse zone befuddles No. 9 Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Seated in his usual corner spot on the couch in a quiet locker room lounge late Tuesday, Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant insisted that if given the chance, he would run back the previous 40 minutes and play them the same way against unranked Syracuse.

Going against a 2-3 zone that at times handcuffed a home team that had often made more than enough shots to win even during the toughest of times, Grant figured a second look at the length and athleticism would loosen up the Irish and see said shots drop.

They didn’t when it mattered.

Unable to make many shots early, then get any stops late, Notre Dame fell to 24-5 overall, 12-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference following a 65-60 loss at Purcell Pavilion.

The Irish shot 34.7 percent from the field, 13.6 percent (3-of-22) from 3.

“We just didn’t make enough shots,” said Grant, who took too long to get his offensive game in gear. “I felt like we got the most perfect looks we could have got.”

Too few fell. One 3 hit the side of the backboard. Another hit the near side of the rim. One drew nothing but air. It was just one of those nights that was bound to catch up to an Irish team that had been so efficient offensively for so long.

A Notre Dame team that had averaged 87.5 points the previous two conference victories had little to fall back on when the shots didn’t drop. Usually when the offense is sputtering, the Irish are able to build some confidence and momentum from the free throw line. Notre Dame finished 37-of-40 from the line the previous two league games, but missed seven (23-for-30) on Tuesday.

“If we could replay this game, I’d do the same thing,” said Grant, who finished with 13 points and nine assists. “We got the looks that we wanted.”

But it was one of the other guys who had two tough looks, and buried both.

Despite not being able to get anything going consistently on the offensive end, the Irish were able to rely on their defense to climb back into a contest that seemingly was headed for a one-sided outcome. Buoyed by freshman Bonzie Colson, who mustered some defensive stops and four quick points, the Irish got within four with four minutes and change remaining.

They then locked in defensively and forced the Orange to bleed the 35-second shot clock into single digits. Notre Dame was two seconds from that one much-needed stop, but the ball found its way to sharp-shooter Trevor Cooney, who made the most of his rushed opportunity.

Seemingly hemmed in in front of the Orange bench, and with many a hand in his face, Cooney connected from the corner with two seconds remaining on the shot clock to push the Orange up six.

Two minutes later, this time with one second remaining on the shot clock and from behind the 3-point line, Cooney connected again to push the Orange up five.

“He hit shots,” said Irish senior Pat Connaughton. “You’ve got to give him credit. He was one of the reasons they won this game.”

Cooney went scoreless in Saturday’s loss to Pittsburgh while battling a sore back. His status was day-to-day coming into the contest, but he wound up scoring 11 points in 31 minutes.

“Luckily, the coach kept him in there,” said Orange coach Jim Boeheim. “He won the game.”

Colson led the Irish with 16 points, which tied his career high.

Sophomore B.J. Johnson tied his career high for the Orange (18-10, 9-6) with 19.

Notre Dame had a little life to open the second half, and got within one on a Zach Auguste reverse lay-in. But just like that, it was the Orange who had answers, and quickly went back up by five.

The building then went lifeless. Again.

Rakeem Christmas was a matchup nightmare at times for the Irish, but he picked up his fourth foul with 13:47 remaining and the Irish down by four. Christmas remained in the game. He fouled out with 5:18 left and Syracuse up eight.

The Irish staggered through a first half that saw them unable to make a shot, unable to take care of the ball and unable to get anything going in the right direction for the better part of the first 20 minutes. So good, so efficient, so together offensively for the previous two games, the Irish fell into a 10-point hole with 2:58 left before intermission because they simply couldn’t make a shot.

From anywhere.

“Their defense, it stalled us,” said Irish coach Mike Brey.

Eight turnovers also didn’t help. Twelve minutes into the contest, the Irish had more miscues (five) than baskets (four).

Curious of all was the play of Grant, the team’s leading scorer. He handed out a game-high four assists in the first half and had five points – all from the foul line. Grant did not have a single field-goal attempt despite playing all 20 minutes.

What would he have done differently?

“Just being more aggressive,” he said. “Against the zone, if you have a look, you have to take it.”

It had been two years since Grant last played against the Syracuse 2-3 zone and the unfamiliarity of seeing it showed. Often parked at the free throw line against the defensive look, Grant appeared too hesitant in trying to figure out if he should pass it or shoot it.

Grant finally squeezed off his first shot attempt with 18:37 remaining. It missed.

He had plenty of company. The Irish were trapped time and again in spots you simply cannot venture against the length and athleticism of the zone – the corners. Passes that seemingly found their way to players in previous games were tipped away and stolen.

Notre Dame gets seven days away from game action before Wednesday’s game at No. 17 Louisville. The Irish close the regular season March 7 at home against Clemson. After that, it’s on to the ACC tournament, where Notre Dame clinched a top-four finish and a double bye when North Carolina lost at home to North Carolina State.

SYRACUSE (18-10): Gbinije 3-9 5-6 12, Roberson 0-4 1-2 1, Christmas 5-14 4-5 14, Cooney 5-11 0-0 11, Joseph 0-2 2-4 2, Johnson 7-13 3-3 19, Patterson 3-4 0-0 6, Obokoh 0-0 0-2 0. Totals 23-57 15-22 65.

NOTRE DAME (24-5): Auguste 5-7 0-1 10, Jackson 1-5 0-2 2, Grant 2-9 9-12 13, Connaughton 3-9 4-4 13, Vasturia 2-10 2-2 6, Beachem 0-1 0-0 0, Colson 4-8 8-9 16. Totals 17-49 23-30 60.

Halftime: Syracuse 27-22. 3-Point Goals_Syracuse 4-16 (Johnson 2-6, Gbinije 1-3, Cooney 1-6, Joseph 0-1), Notre Dame 3-22 (Connaughton 3-7, Beachem 0-1, Jackson 0-2, Vasturia 0-6, Grant 0-6). Fouled Out: Christmas. Rebounds: Syracuse 39 (Christmas 12), Notre Dame 35 (Connaughton 15). Assists: Syracuse 11 (Roberson 3), Notre Dame 11 (Grant 9). Total Fouls: Syracuse 19, Notre Dame 17. A: 9,149.

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Notre Dame guard Pat Connaughton  passes around Syracuse guard Trevor Cooney during Tuesday's game.AP Photo/JOE RAYMOND