Good not good enough for Notre Dame men against Pittsburgh

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Collecting consolation prizes continues to define this Notre Dame men’s basketball team early in Atlantic Coast Conference play.

It happened in the league opener against No. 4 Virginia, when the offensive efficiency Notre Dame offered was enough to win plenty a conference contest. It didn’t happen then because of too many defensive breakdowns.

A familiar scenario unfolded Saturday for Notre Dame in its conference home opener against No. 24 Pittsburgh. The offensive numbers offered by the home team were good. Off-the-charts good. Solid. Efficient. Sound. But the visitor's were better.

Again unable to get key stops that are going to turn close conference contests in its favor, Notre Dame was left to digest another ACC near-miss following an 86-82 loss at Purcell Pavilion.

“For a lot of the game, we didn’t show a lot of resistance,” said junior captain Steve Vasturia. “They were getting a lot of shots that they wanted. You’ve got to be better in your own building.”

Unable to muster some much-needed momentum playing its first ranked team, Notre Dame never led in falling to 10-5, 1-2 in the ACC. The Irish have trailed by at least 18 points in each of their league losses. Winners of 10 straight, including its first true road game Saturday, Pittsburgh improves to 12-1, 3-0.

Notre Dame shot 54.2 percent from the field, 45 percent from 3, scored 40 points in the paint and committed a season-low three turnovers. That’s plenty good enough to win a lot of league games, but not when the other guys shoot 50 percent from the field, 52.6 percent from 3 (which included 10 crushers from distance) and 83.3 percent from the foul line. The Panthers went 12-of-16 in the second half to hold off any Irish comeback thoughts.

Pittsburgh also won the rebounding battle (34-24).

Again, no defense for the Irish defense.

“That’s really hurting us right now,” said coach Mike Brey. “We never had effort and defensive intelligence together much tonight. We kind of played all over the place.”

Yet this one could have swung Notre Dame’s way on two late possessions — one offensively and one, as has been the case most of the year, on defense. Both came up short.

Having twice trailed by as many as 18 points – including the first time barely eight minutes in – the Irish climbed back within one possession with under two minutes remaining. Notre Dame made it interesting late thanks to a 14-2 run fueled by stops and defensive rebounds, which didn’t happen well enough or often enough earlier.

Pittsburgh suddenly seemed in a whole lot of trouble clinging to a 79-77 lead. An offense that had flowed so freely nearly all afternoon had gone stagnant. Notre Dame’s defense looked like it would get that key stop. A crowd of 8,298 stirred, perhaps sensing that they might be witnessing a defining moment in a season void of many.

With the shot clock under 10 seconds, Irish guard Demetrius Jackson decided on his own to leave his man under the basket. He tried to sneak up the baseline and poke the ball from Michael Young, who the Irish had no answer for all afternoon. But a split second before Jackson arrived, Young sensed the double coming, turned and found James Robinson, the guy Jackson was supposed to be on. Young shot the ball to Robinson, who flipped it up and in for a four-point lead with 89 seconds remaining.

“Definitely want that one back,” Jackson said of the sequence. “I was trying to help out a teammate, but just gotta be solid there. I took a chance. It didn’t go in my favor.

“Just gotta keep getting better. Just gotta be disciplined.”

Young led the Panthers with 25 points. Jamel Artis added 19 and Sheldon Jeter burst off the bench with 18. The rest of the Panthers combined for 24.

"We didn't come into the game thinking we were going to score as much as we did," Young said. "Our goal was to come in and play defense and rebound. If we did that, we would have a great chance of winning."

Jackson led four Irish in double figures with 26 points. He also had a team-high six assists to zero turnovers in all 40 minutes.

Still, the Irish had a really good chance to potentially get this one to overtime. A Jackson dunk pulled the Irish within three with 48 seconds left. A defensive stop allowed the Irish to get out in transition. The scramble left Matt Ryan alone behind the 3-point line with 15 seconds remaining.

Ryan’s offering drifted wide, glanced off the rim and ricocheted out of bound before Pitt persevered.

“For us to have a Matt Ryan 3 to tie it, I don’t know if we deserved that quite frankly,” Brey said. “Somehow, the game got crazy and there we were in that position.”

Being asleep at the switch to start both halves proved too costly for Notre Dame, which dug itself holes that were too great to overcome. Knowing it had to be really good defensively and locked in on every possession at the start, Notre Dame allowed Pittsburgh to get rolling early. The Panthers scored 10 unanswered points in just over two minutes, then pushed the Irish further back on their heels in going up by 18 less than eight minutes in.

Notre Dame made a run fueled by four-straight 3-pointers from Jackson, but the scramble ate up a lot of effort.

“We’ve gotta come out better,” Jackson said. “We can’t kind of feel it out. We’ve got to come out and be physical. We’ve got to have attention to detail.

“We can’t put ourselves in a hole.”

Pittsburgh scored more points in the first seven-plus minutes of the first half (25) than Notre Dame allowed Boston College the first 20 of Thursday’s game (24).

“It’s just frustrating to start that way and have to dig out of a hole,” Brey said. “I wish we could have dug in a little better defensively to start the game. They had an answer for everything.”

Still, it was a six-point game at the break. A stop or two here, some emotion there, and the Irish might flip it in their favor. But again, something was missing with the second-half start, something that Brey wondered might need to be fixed with a change in the lineup, maybe sooner than later.

Less than three minutes after trailing by six, Notre Dame was down big again – by 13 – and back to scrambling and searching and wondering.

PITTSBURGH (14-1): Jamel Artis 7-15 0-0 19, Michael Young 7-11 11-14 25, Rafael Maia 0-1 1-2 1, James Robinson 2-10 2-2 6, Sterling Smith 3-5 0-0 9, Damon Wilson 1-1 0-0 3, Ryan Luther 0-0 0-0 0, Chris Jones 2-3 0-0 5, Sheldon Jeter 6-10 6-6 18, Cameron Johnson 0-0 0-0 0, Alonzo Nelson-Ododa 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-56 20-24 86.

NOTRE DAME (10-5): V.J. Beachem 3-7 0-0 8, Zach Auguste 5-11 2-3 12, Bonzie Colson 6-9 1-2 13, Demetrius Jackson 9-18 3-4 26,Steve Vasturia 6-9 1-1 13, Rex Pflueger 1-1 0-0 2, Austin Torres 0-0 0-2 0, Matt Ryan 2-4 2-2 8. Totals 32-59 9-14 82.

Halftime--Pittsburgh 49-43. 3-Point Goals--Pittsburgh 10-19 (Artis 5-9, S. Smith 3-4, Wilson 1-1, Jones 1-2, Jeter 0-1, Robinson 0-2), Notre Dame 9-20 (Jackson 5-10, Ryan 2-4, Beachem 2-5, Vasturia 0-1). Fouled Out--Auguste. Rebounds--Pittsburgh 34 (Artis, S. Smith, Young 5), Notre Dame 24 (Beachem, Colson 6). Assists--Pittsburgh 17 (Robinson 6), Notre Dame 14 (Jackson 6). Total Fouls--Pittsburgh 17, Notre Dame 20. A--8,298.

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Senior power forward Zach Auguste and Notre Dame had no answers Saturday for No. 24 Pittsburgh.AP Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN