Analysis: Quiet exit from NCAA Tournament for Notre Dame men

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

BUFFALO, N.Y. — This is how March Madness ends for every team but one.

A heaviness of defeat hovers over a cramped locker room in a loud and large arena. Blank stares are everywhere. Quiet dominates. A few tears are shed. Players who can be so boisterous on the team bus and on the basketball court answer questions in whisper-like tones.

It happens. It all just … ends.

On Saturday, for the first time during its sometimes magical/mythical two-plus year run through the NCAA Tournament that saw it win seven games, it happened to Notre Dame with an 83-71 loss to West Virginia in the second round of the West Regional.

For the first time since 2014, the Sweet 16 beckons without Notre Dame a part of it. Winners of nine of their final 12, the No. 5 seed Irish close down season No. 112 in school history 26-10. West Virginia (28-8), the No. 4 seed, advances to discover its way to San Jose and Thursday’s regional semifinal.

That this tournament doesn’t end well for everyone except one is accepted. It’s part of the deal. What wasn’t easily accepted by the guys still sitting around in sweat-soaked gold jerseys is how the end arrived at 2:22 p.m. eastern time on a gray and drizzly afternoon in Western New York.

Early tournament losses once were a program norm. And nobody really seemed to mind. Not lately. And that hurts.

“We’ve been used to getting to the second weekend,” said coach Mike Brey. “That’s why our guys are so crushed. They really expected to go.”

And go playing the way Notre Dame plays. Two years ago when it came within a shot of advancing to its first Final Four since 1978, it was playing perhaps as well as anyone in the tournament. Others may have been more talented, but the Irish arguably were the best team of that tournament.

A year ago, Notre Dame became the only school in the country to get to consecutive Elite Eights.

Those losses also were tough to take, but were understandably easier to accept. Notre Dame had maxed out March, squeezed all the big shots and big moments and big wins from what the month offered.

Not this time around.

Notre Dame never led Saturday and trailed by as many as 12. It’s been a while since the Irish were dominated so thoroughly.

“It’s one of the worst feelings in the world,” said junior power forward Bonzie Colson. “It just sucks.”

As good as Notre Dame was the previous week in New York to advance to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship for the second time in three years, it was way too sluggish on the other side of the Empire State.

And there’s a reason.

“We used a lot of juice in Brooklyn,” Brey said. “I think you could see it in the Princeton game. I was hoping with the win and the emotion we’d have a little more juice.”

They had some in a nice, little glass. The Mountaineers had it in five-gallon buckets.

Since ACC play commenced on New Year’s Eve with the overtime thriller in Pittsburgh, Notre Dame had been big-shot takers and makers. Big playmakers. The Irish took care of the ball, answered runs, got stops and had other guys step into starring roles when the main guys struggled.

That never happened Saturday. The season’s over because of it.

The Irish finished 40.7 percent from the field, 35.7 percent from 3. Knowing West Virginia would attack in waves, Notre Dame turned it over 10 times in the first half when the game got away and finished with 14.

Other than Colson, who was his usual first team All-ACC self with 27 points, including a career-high four 3-pointers, nobody else managed more than 11.

Senior captain V.J. Beachem had announced his arrival on this stage last season with monster tournament efforts. Not this year. His career instead faded quietly. After going 1-of-9 from the field in Thursday’s two-point victory over Princeton, Beachem made two of his 14 shots from the floor, one of his nine offerings from 3.

“You never want to go out with a loss,” Beachem said. “It’s tough right now.”

A good chunk of what the Irish didn’t do is because of what the Mountaineers did do. They pressed. They made it hard for the Irish to get comfortable. They kept coming, kept coming, kept coming.

Before anyone in the building knew it, Brey had burned a timeout after the Irish were down 10-0 less than four minutes in.

The rest of the day was an uphill climb. A big one. A frustrating one. One that never came close to reaching the summit.

“It was tough to get out of that hole, especially against a team like that,” said guard Matt Farrell. “They took us out of it. It’s just basketball, man. Sometimes, it’s not your day.”

Every time it seemed Notre Dame had a sliver of opportunity, that door slammed shut as if aided by a gust of wind off nearby Lake Erie.

The Irish got within four points three times the final 19 minutes. West Virginia always had an answer. The Mountaineers would make a big shot, throw on the press, rattle the Irish, force a quick shot, then do it all over.

“It does break your spirit,” Brey said. “I’ve got a really mentally tough group, but that was a real mental test today.”

One the Irish flunked.

NOTRE DAME (26-10): Bonzie Colson 10-15 3-3 27, V.J. Beachem 2-14 4-4 9, Steve Vasturia 4-9 2-2 11, Matt Farrell 3-6 0-0 8, Rex Pflueger 1-4 0-0 2, Matt Ryan 2-3 2-2 8, Austin Torres 0-1 0-0 0, Martinas Geben 0-0 2-2 2, T.J. Gibbs 0-2 4-4 4. Totals 22-54 17-17 71.

WEST VIRGINIA (28-8): Esa Ahmad 3-7 4-4 11, Elijah Macon 4-7 3-4 11, Nathan Adrian 1-3 1-3 3, Daxter Miles 5-8 7-8 18, Jevon Carter 8-15 4-5 24, Lamont West 0-3 0-0 0, Brandon Watkins 0-2 0-0 0, Sagaba Konate 2-3 0-0 4, Teyvon Myers 0-0 0-0 0, Tarik Phillip 4-6 2-2 12. Totals 27-54 21-26 83.

Halftime--West Virginia 42-35. 3-Point Goals--Notre Dame 10-28 (Colson 4-5, Ryan 2-3, Farrell 2-4, Vasturia 1-5, Beachem 1-9, Pflueger 0-2), West Virginia 8-14 (Carter 4-5, Phillip 2-4, Ahmad 1-1, Miles 1-1, Adrian 0-1, West 0-2). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Notre Dame 22 (Colson 8), West Virginia 31 (Ahmad 9). Assists--Notre Dame 12 (Farrell 6), West Virginia 16 (Adrian 4). Total Fouls--Notre Dame 21, West Virginia 18. Technicals--Gibbs.

Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson (35) reacts to Saturday's 83-71 loss to West Virginia in a second-round NCAA Tournament game in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)