Oooof! Rattled Notre Dame loses rare November home hoops game to Radford

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Red flags were raised all across the arena floor during the second half of Wednesday’s game between Notre Dame and Radford.

The more they were – right there and there and there - the more this one was headed in this particular direction.

One team (Radford) got confident, started hitting shots and got rolling something serious. Started playing with some swagger. Started to get that upset look in its eye.

Another team (Notre Dame) couldn’t get anything going on the offensive end. As the pressure built, the Irish pressed. More crazy shots. More crazy possessions. Crazy lineup combinations. The other guys were ready and willing and able to handle the pressure that comes with playing a close contest, even so early in the season.

At this point, that’s not Notre Dame. It might be a while before the Irish have what it takes to win these games. Maybe next month. Maybe next year. Maybe never. The Irish are too young, too uncertain, too inexperienced and, honestly, just not good enough at this point.

Notre Dame never could figure it out when it needed to figure it out in a 63-60 loss at Purcell Pavilion.

This one was likely to raise a few eyebrows when it scrolled across the ticker. But Mike Brey’s not surprised. He feared this one the previous four days. Radford was old. Was experienced. Was good. Was confident.

His team? Now? None of the above.

“They’re way better than us right now,” Brey said. “They made all the tough plays.”

A career night by power forward John Mooney ended in a forgettable one for Notre Dame. Mooney scored a career-high 24 points with a career-high 12 rebounds but the Irish had some serious game pressure put on them. How would they respond?

Not well, or well enough for a young team still searching. The Irish took some weird shots, forced some weird stuff and didn’t make enough plays when plays absolutely needed to be made. Then the other guys did to hand the Irish a rare November home loss. A non-conference home loss.

Prior to Wednesday, that hadn’t happened since Nov. 17, 2013 when Indiana State spanked Notre Dame.

“Just didn’t get it done at the end,” Mooney said. “They’re a good team, but we gotta be better.”

Notre Dame lost because it still can’t do what it’s long been able to do – score. The Irish connected on 31 percent of their shots in the second half, nine percent from 3. They scored only 26 points.

“We just have a hard time finding an offensive rhythm with our group,” Brey said. “We’ve got a long way to go, which we knew.”

Compounding those inability-to-make-shots matters was that two of the team’s better scorers, sophomore D.J. Harvey and freshman Nate Laszewski, spent stretches of the second half on the bench. Harvey played only six minutes in the second half; Laszewski logged nine. Laszewski scored two points; Harvey had nothing.

Afterward, Brey second-guessed his decision to go a different rotation direction, where more of the minutes went to freshmen Prentiss Hubb (26) and Robby Carmody (18).

“I’m searching too,” Brey said. “We kind of had a lineup that was alert defensively to get us a couple stops there. We kind of rode that group.”

In other words, Laszewski and Harvey didn’t guard well enough to warrant more minutes, no matter how much the Irish labored to make shots.

Despite all the disappointment that surfaced in the second half, Notre Dame still could have made this interesting. It forced a shot-clock violation with 14.9 seconds remaining and down three. But a T.J. Gibbs high-degree-of-difficulty 3 wasn’t close. Arguably the team’s best player, Gibbs continues to struggle to make shots. He scored a season-high 11 but was 4-of-10 from the floor, 0-fo-7 from 3.

Adding insult to the evening was that Radford escaped with the road win without one of its best players. The Highlanders were without guard Carlik Jones, who was suspended earlier in the week by coach Mike Jones for conduct detrimental to the team. Radford didn’t need Jones, mainly because it had sharp-shooting guard Caleb Tanner. A native of Floyd, Va., the senior spent countless hours back home in the family barn working with a shooting machine that his grandfather bought for him. The work showed. Tanner hit shot after shot after shot from deep, each one a little further out and closer to Mishawaka by the time this one was done. He scored a team-high 20 points, including six 3s.

“Everybody kind of looks past him,” Jones said. “I was really proud of him stepping up.”

The Irish fell into a three-point hole – which felt more like 23 – with 6:55 remaining following a Travis Fields fade jumper in a late-clock possession. Notre Dame had chances, a lot of chances, on the other end but couldn’t get any semblance of rhythm going. In a contest of game situations, Notre Dame staggered through a scoreless stretch of nearly three minutes and went 1-fo-10 from the field before a Gibbs flip shot.

Mooney connected on his first five 3-pointers and six of his eight in the first half for a game-high 18 points. That tied his previous career high set last year against North Carolina. He also had a game-high seven rebounds in the half.

Mooney’s sixth 3 was key for the Irish, who’d seen their 10-point lead sliced to one, 24-23, with just over four minutes remaining in the first half. The Mooney 3 then stretched the lead to four, which kick-started an 8-0 Irish run.

Notre Dame led by six, 34-28 at intermission. The Irish had twice as many 3s (eight) as twos (four) in the opening 20 minutes.

The Irish found themselves in game situations in the second half against a Highlander team that won an NCAA tournament game last spring. Radford twice crept to within one point in the first two-plus minutes, but the Irish guards answered. Gibbs delivered a hook shot in the lane for some breathing room before a Rex Pflueger old-fashion three-point play.

It wasn’t enough. Fields got loose for a corner 3 to give Radford a 41-40 with 16:26 remaining. It marked the first time this season that Notre Dame has trailed. Didn’t happen in a 17-point win over UIC. Didn’t happen in a 27-point win over Chicago State. Might happen a lot moving deeper through non-league play, when the competition gets a little tougher.

Looking to shave a rotation that stretched 10 deep the first two games, Brey worked with nine guys the first 20 minutes. He also pared down the number of different combinations, rolling through only eight different lineups in the first half. The odd man out, at least on this night, was sophomore power forward Juwan Durham, who did not play in the first half. Getting three bigs – really, four if you count Laszewski, all through the rotation early is a tough task, one that Brey didn’t want to handle.

Freshman Dane Goodwin was the ninth and final guy into the rotation late in the first half.

Notre Dame’s seven-game homestand to start the season continues Saturday with a noon tip against William & Mary. Like this one, that’s no gimmie. Not for this team. Not this season.

“Everybody can beat us,” Brey said. “That’s who we are right now.”

Notre Dame’s Nate Laszewski (14) gets past Radford’s Devonnte Holland during Wednesday at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.
Notre Dame’s TJ Gibbs (10) fights for a loose ball with Radford’s Travis Fields, Jr. Wednesday at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.