Noie: Notre Dame men's basketball close, but can't close against North Carolina

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It had the makings of one of those special moments — finding a way out at the end of a high-energy evening of back and forth basketball — for an undermanned Notre Dame team that kept fighting and battling and believing.

All that and a whole lot of hope could take the home team only so far. Eventually, the Irish had to make a shot. Had to get a stop. Had to make a winning play regardless of who’s on the floor and who’s not when a winning play needed to be made.

They didn't. They were a play and a man — OK, two — short.

Joel Berry II sank two free throws with 7.1 seconds remaining as No. 20 North Carolina escaped raucous Purcell Pavilion with a 69-68 victory Saturday night.

North Carolina found a way to close. Notre Dame’s two top in that department — seniors Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell — were spectators, unable to offer anything because of injury. Maybe it’s a different story if Farrell plays for the first time since suffering a sprained ankle on Jan. 3.

But he didn’t. And it wasn’t.

Notre Dame fell to 13-5, 3-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“You can never prepare for adversity and the way it’s going to hit, but we have to be prepared to face it and meet the challenge,” said senior power forward Martinas Geben. “We did a lot of things well. It’s really tough.”

Tough in that the Irish thought they had gotten the late stop and forced the Tar Heels into a shot-clock violation. But hold on. Official Ed Corbett found a foul to call. That put Berry on the line and the Irish in a really tough spot — go the length of the court in 7.1 seconds.

“It’s a tough call, a questionable call,” Geben said. “It’s hard to question it. You have to do other things well and not leave it up to the officials to decide the game.”

Still, T.J. Gibbs raced down the floor and had two good looks right at the rim in the closing seconds. He missed the fist and rebounded the second, which rolled around and seemingly halfway down — then jumped out.

“I thought it was good,” Gibbs said.

“I feel for our guys,” Irish coach Mike Brey said in his post-game interview. “Are you guys as (ticked) as I am?”

They certainly were in the home team locker room.

“Not happy,” Geben said.

This one featured 12 ties and a staggering 24 lead changes. That speaks to how these undermanned Irish can battle and take punches and keep coming back swinging with swagger. But this one also underscored how the Irish again struggle to score. Following a pair of 3-pointers from ... wait for it…. sophomore Nikola Djogo, the Irish staggered the final 5:58 without any buckets. They missed their last nine shots. All they got were two Gibbs free throws.

Not nearly enough. Not against that team.

“Things just didn’t go our way, the way we needed them to,” Geben said.

Notre Dame finally got into something that resembled an offensive flow at the start despite some more horrendous shooting in the first half. The Irish made three of their first five shots. That included the first-ever 3-pointer from Geben to beat the shot clock. Brey then started subbing his main guys for the reserves, and that’s when the problems arose.

Big problems.

Notre Dame then missed its next 11 attempts. From in close. From deep. The Irish fumbled away the ball. They couldn’t corral rebounds. Going bigger — Brey’s way of running guys in and out of the rotation is to just turn to the bench and yell “Big guys, get in there!” — doesn’t necessarily mean better. Not with some of these lineup combinations that might have trouble holding the court at the Rock.

“It’s a game of runs,” Gibbs said. “We have to stay within ourselves. No matter how much they go up by, we know we can get back in it, but doing it our way.”

North Carolina’s largest lead was six.

The Irish were able to hold their own on the backboard, where the size mattered. But they couldn’t score, and were holding on for their basketball lives at points throughout the first 20 minutes before the main five helped get some consistency and some points.

After going for a combined 39 points in their last two first halves, Notre Dame scored 37 on Saturday. It felt like one of those patented Irish lightning strikes on that end after so many bricks tossed at the backboard the previous two games. Looking for some more offense somewhere within the rotation, Brey shuffled the starting lineup for the fifth straight game. Some of that is based on injury losses, but it’s also based on the Irish not being able to do something they’ve always been known to do under Brey — score. A lot. Easily.

Points have been at too much of a premium. It’s reached a point where guys like Geben and Gibbs and Rex Pflueger cannot have off nights. If they do, the Irish have zero chance. There just isn’t much time to have them out of the game. They’ve got to play. They’ve got to shoot. When they don’t, who will?

For all the good that arrived in the first half, Notre Dame had some serious issues. Late on defensive rotations and even later to any and all loose balls. A team without its top two scorers has to do almost everything right to have a chance against a team as powerful and potent as North Carolina.

Notre Dame simply didn’t. It struggled to get the first missed shot — were some of the Irish reserves playing with greasy hands? — and struggled on its defensive rotations.

See that No. 2 for North Carolina? That’s Berry. He’s good. He’s led the Tar Heels to the last two national championship games. How about not allowing him open looks from 3 in the first half? And then in the second half? Elijah Burns works hard and hustles, but he has no business trying to check Theo Pinson. The Tar Heel swingman broke loose for five quick points to stretch the visitors’ advantage to six, 56-50, with 9:48 remaining.

Carolina has a counter or two with its substitutions. Notre Dame doesn’t.

Barefoot and wearing Spider-man pajama bottoms, Farrell was seated in the front row about two hours before tip-off dribbling a ball. He dressed for the first time since turning his left ankle late in the first half 10 days earlier against North Carolina State.

Farrell led the Irish out of the tunnel pre-game wearing the hoodie of his warmup over his head — Rocky? — but never moved off the bench. Maybe Tuesday at home against Louisville.

It's time he returns. And time for the Irish to get going. Back in the right direction.

NORTH CAROLINA (14-4): Maye 8-14 1-2 18, Pinson 4-7 4-6 13, Williams 2-7 1-3 5, Johnson 2-10 2-2 7, Berry 5-11 2-2 15, Manley 3-5 1-2 7, Brooks 2-2 0-0 4, Platek 0-0 0-0 0, Felton 0-2 0-0 0, Robinson 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 26-61 11-17 69.

NOTRE DAME (13-5): Mooney 2-5 0-0 5, Geben 4-9 5-6 14, Gibbs 6-20 4-4 19, Pflueger 2-6 2-2 7, Harvey 4-13 0-1 9, Torres 0-3 0-0 0, Burns 1-3 0-0 2, Djogo 4-7 1-2 12. Totals 23-66 12-15 68.

Halftime--North Carolina 40-37. 3-Point Goals--North Carolina 6-21 (Berry 3-6, Pinson 1-1, Maye 1-3, Johnson 1-5, Robinson 0-1, Felton 0-2, Williams 0-3), Notre Dame 10-24 (Gibbs 3-6, Djogo 3-6, Geben 1-1, Pflueger 1-2, Mooney 1-3, Harvey 1-6). Fouled Out--Williams. Rebounds--North Carolina 35 (Maye 11), Notre Dame 39 (Geben 9). Assists--North Carolina 16 (Pinson 4), Notre Dame 13 (Gibbs 6). Total Fouls--North Carolina 16, Notre Dame 16. A--9,149 (9,149).

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Notre Dame’s Temple 'T.J.' Gibbs Jr. (10) reacts to missing the final shot during the North Carolina at Notre Dame men's NCAA basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA