Loss leaves Notre Dame men searching, wondering

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Senior captains are expected to accept these moments, embrace these moments and, above all else, execute in the moments of a close college basketball there for the taking.

Power forward Zach Auguste had a chance to give No. 17 Notre Dame a whole lot of breathing room Sunday en route to a second win in three tournament tries. He wanted the ball against Alabama, accepted that he got fouled in the closing seconds and embraced the chance to step to the free throw line of a game the Irish led by one.

He would be the difference. He would put the Irish up by three with 28.6 seconds remaining.

Didn’t work out that way. No way near it.

Auguste missed both free throws, part of the five he failed on, before Alabama guard Retin Obasohan sliced through a soft zone defense with six seconds remaining to drop the Irish to 4-2 following a 74-73 loss in the fifth-place game of the AdvoCare Invitational.

Afterward, Auguste walked into a quiet locker room and told his teammates that this one was one him. Yes, the Irish could have been so much better in so many areas, but when the game was on the line, the senior captain couldn’t deliver. He knows he had to.

“I take responsibility for it,” said Auguste, who finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. “That’s something I did. I didn’t knock some free throws down. I can’t dwell in the past. Gotta get ready for the next game.”

Five days earlier, Notre Dame embarked on its first road trip with designs of winning this tournament championship. On Sunday, the Irish headed north knowing there’s a lot of work to be done to keep everything from heading south.

This isn’t a good team right now, one that’s not going to be ranked when the latest polls come out Monday afternoon. It's a team searching to find a good place with tests against Illinois (Wednesday) and Stony Brook (Dec. 8) looming. And the head coach is OK with that. For now.

“Growing pains,” said coach Mike Brey. “Growing pains of my new team this year. We did a lot of good things against a good team.”

But …

“We're kind of a poor group, man. We really are."

Especially defensively,

"I’m disappointed we couldn’t get a stop to win the game," Brey said. "That’s an area where we have to be better or we’re going to have many disappointments like this.”

Notre Dame lost when Auguste’s two free throws and a late drive by Demetrius Jackson against a whole host of pressure didn’t fall, but there were many reasons why the Irish walked out of HP Field House wondering exactly what the coming days and weeks and months might hold for a team that didn’t expect to lose two games before December.

Notre Dame gave itself a chance to win despite doing everything it could to give this one away. The Irish fell into a double-digit deficit barely six minutes in after a 10-0 Tide run. Alabama's lead twice ballooned to 13.

Any semblance of everything running smoothly then went out the window.

The Irish trailed for the final 18 minutes and were down four at intermission. Ranked 12th in the SEC in scoring at 67.8 points per game, Alabama erupted for 43 the first 20 minutes.

"We," Brey said, "were in scramble mode early."

Guarding dribble penetration was a problem all night. As efficient as the Irish were offensively in the second half – they opened by connecting on their first four shots and eight of nine – they gave up good looks just as fast.

“We didn’t get the job done,” Auguste said of the defensive deficiencies. “We weren’t sliding. It was poor defense.”

“They got by us at will whether we were in man or zone,” said junior guard Steve Vasturia. “You get past that first level of defense, any team is going to be able to score.”

Sensing his team could cut up the defense regardless of the look, Alabama coach Avery Johnson instructed his team to push it, drive it, attack the basket.

The Tide did it time and again to the tune of 54.4 percent shooting and 44 points in the paint. None were tougher to stomach than the last two.

Following Auguste’s two missed free throws and a timeout, Brey made the unorthodox call for the Irish to go to a 2-3 zone. Typically in that situation — end of game, one possession — he always asks for the Irish to dig in and guard in man. This time, he called for the zone, which seemed at first to fluster Alabama. The Tide tried to decipher it for a good 16 seconds before Johnson, seeing where the soft spot might be, called a timeout to design a play for Obasohan.

Back out of the timeout, Obasohan did exactly what his coach asked, and got to the basket with relative ease for his 18th and 19th points, which turned out to be the game-winners.

Obasohan credited his rookie head coach for the winner.

“It’s actually pretty funny,” he said. “Every time he draws up a play, it’s amazing how he can predict where everybody will be. It’s crazy how Coach Johnson makes that happen.”

Johnson knew that if the Irish came back in zone, Obasohan could attack from the right side – Bonzie Colson’s side on the back line.

“We thought we had a good matchup,” Johnson said. “We thought Retin could get by him. We did a great job attacking the paint.”

Notre Dame headed home 1-2 in the tourney with both losses in the closing seconds. Notre Dame lost to Monmouth on Thanksgiving night on two free throws from Justin Robinson, the tournament most valuable player, with 3.6 seconds remaining.

Robinson gutted the Irish man-to-man defense with a drive, which resulted in a foul and two free throws. On Sunday, it was zone that let the Irish down.

Notre Dame will have little time to exhale after finishing three games in four days. The Irish traveling party was scheduled to return to South Bend late Sunday before two days of practice and another trip, this time to Champaign, Ill., for the first time in 51 years and Wednesday’s game against Illinois in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

“There’s a lot of things we can get better at,” Vasturia said. “But we’ve got to do it quick.”

ALABAMA (4-2): Taylor 1-1 1-2 3, Hale 7-14 2-3 19, Edwards 6-7 0-0 15, Ingram 2-4 0-0 4, Obasohan 8-19 3-5 19, Norris 0-1 0-0 0, Kessens 4-5 0-0 8, Coleman 1-4 0-0 2, Austin 0-0 0-0 0, Hall 2-2 0-0 4. Totals 31-57 6-10 74.

NOTRE DAME (73): Beachem 5-9 1-1 13, Auguste 6-14 4-9 16, Colson 3-7 0-0 6, Jackson 4-13 6-7 16, Vasturia 6-10 3-4 18, Torres 0-0 0-0 0, Ryan 0-2 2-2 2, Farrell 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 25-56 16-23 73.

Halftime--Alabama 43-39. 3-Point Goals--Alabama 6-17 (Edwards 3-4, Hale 3-6, Coleman 0-3, Obasohan 0-4), Notre Dame 7-14 (Vasturia 3-3, Jackson 2-4, Beachem 2-5, Ryan 0-2). Fouled Out--Ingram, Taylor. Rebounds--Alabama 34 (Kessens 9), Notre Dame 32 (Auguste 10). Assists--Alabama 11 (Obasohan 5), Notre Dame 12 (Jackson 6). Total Fouls--Alabama 22, Notre Dame 14. A--4,633.

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Notre Dame forward V.J. Beachem moves the ball while being defended by Alabama guard Retin Obasohan (32) during Sunday's game.AP Photo/WILLIE J. ALLEN JR.