Notre Dame men's hoops loss a cry for bench help

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS – Heavy legs. Every trip down the basketball floor was an ordeal.

No hop in the step. No hitch in the gitty-up.

The Irish were gassed.

How does Notre Dame’s 16-point lead turn into an 80-73 loss to Indiana Saturday? Exhaustion.

How does exhaustion happen? No bench.

On every possession, Notre Dame’s “Iron Five” kept putting their head down and sucking wind – until the Hoosiers sucked the life out of the Irish.

This was an epic meltdown that won’t be forgotten easily.

• Notre Dame didn’t score in the last 2:55 of the game.

• The Irish were outscored 17-2 over the final 6:32.

• After hitting their first seven shots of the second half — it looked a lot like layup drills — the Irish closed the game by hitting just 8 of their final 26 attempts.

It was like falling off a cliff with nothing to grab. A free fall that couldn’t stop. A wound that kept oozing until the patient bled out.

It was bad. It’s one of those that’s remembered in March.

For 34 minutes, the Irish owned Bankers Life Fieldhouse and dictated the attitude of most of the crimson-clads. Three times, when Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson were having their way with IU’s interior excuse for a defense, a cascade of boos greeted IU coach Tom Crean and his boys.

They certainly deserved it. Even with Demetrius Jackson playing well below his best game, the Irish were able to survive. Trouble was brewing, though. Auguste’s fouls were mounting. Steve Vasturia missed all five of his 3-point tries, including one that air-balled. Colson, who looked like a schoolyard wizard at times, was finally being guarded.

The momentum changer happened with just over 5 minutes to play and the Irish up, 71-64. IU’s Nick Zeisloft missed a 3-pointer. O.G. Anunoby rebounded. Troy Williams misfired a 3, Anunoby rebounded again, this time he slammed home a dunk.

More than cutting the Notre Dame lead to five, it was a message that some fresh legs — Anunoby made that impact in just seven minutes on the floor — can cause the Irish problems.

Crean’s rotation went eight deep, plus Anunoby. Notre Dame’s “Iron Five” wilted with just Matt Ryan (three points, three blocks in 15 minutes) and Matt Ferrell (four assists in 13 minutes) — and Austin Torres adding a quality 17 seconds — providing minimal — and hardly impactful — relief.

If it was a problem against an Indiana team that is as defensively-challenged as any Atlantic Coast Conference team Notre Dame will see this season, it will be a major concern as the grind of the league begins in a couple weeks.

Ten games into the season, with a starting lineup that played big-time minutes on some big-time stages last season, the Irish should be beyond the point of being intimidated by the moment — especially against the Hoosiers, who were ripe to be blown out and kicked to the curb in the first 34 minutes.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey struggled trying to put his finger on the intangibles his players must work through.

“Maybe it’s the game situation…,” Brey said. “Playing against zone (defense); you’re up a couple; it’s a one-possession game; now, shooting that jump shot or making that play, there’s some game pressure on you.”

If it's dealing with a “game situation” that’s the problem, now’s a heck of a time to try to work through it. Remember, Virginia’s right around the corner.

“It’s different attacking with game pressure down the stretch on the road,” Brey said. “It’s an area of growth we need to have.”

No time to nurse it along. That growth has to happen in a hurry.

Or before you know it, it’ll be too late and the Irish will be pondering their NIT bracket.

This can be a cry for help – and a mandate to find some production off the bench.

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey exits the court following the 80-73 loss to Indiana, Saturday at Banker's Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)