Noie: Too many misses again doom Notre Dame in ACC play

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — This one seemed scripted for another magical moment in another conference contest at Purcell Pavilion for a Notre Dame men’s basketball team so accustom to embracing those scenarios in seasons past.

It was set up that way — home opener in Atlantic Coast Conference play and old Big East colleague Syracuse in town. Big opponent; big game. Wearing the same mustard-gold uniforms that it rode to a pair of Elite Eight appearances in the NCAA tournament not long ago, maybe Notre Dame could corral some of that karma.

Instead, the door of opportunity to win a league game again slammed shut on the Irish. Instead of making the plays it needed to make, Notre Dame (10-5; 0-2) again couldn’t make enough shots in a 72-62 loss.

Previous Irish teams featuring veteran guys with swagger like Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton and Demetrius Jackson would have won this game. Same with last year’s core of Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell and Martin Geben. When it was time to figure it out and make their move, they figured it out and made their move.

It led to one of coach Mike Brey’s most memorable post-game locker room quotes.

“When the lights are bright and the stage is big, the freakin’ Irish deliver.”

Only one problem — the core who so often delivered is gone. Long gone.

“Bonzie, Matt, those guys aren’t walking into this locker room anytime soon,” said junior guard T.J. Gibbs. “We know that. We know that it’s us against everyone.

“No one gives us a shot.”

Especially since the Irish can’t make one when they really need to make one. This one followed a script similar to Notre Dame’s conference opener four days earlier against No. 10 Virginia Tech. Much like that New Year’s Day afternoon of aggravation in Blacksburg, the Irish did enough to make it interesting in the second half. They put themselves in position for one final push toward a possible win. But they again couldn’t do what they needed to do when they needed to do it.

“We had some pretty good looks in there,” said junior power forward John Mooney. “Just didn’t hit them down the stretch.”

With 6:19 remaining, it was 60-58 Orange. The Irish missed nine of their final 10 shots and scored four points — a Dane Goodwin 3 and a Nate Laszewski free throw.

On Saturday, there was much to like. Mooney registered his conference-leading seventh double for points and rebounds with 14 and 14. Gibbs piggy-backed a solid league opener with another quality effort of 18 points on six 3-pointers. The Irish played relatively steady with 16 assists to 11 turnovers against an Orange zone that can be troubling as it is terrorizing.

Notre Dame just isn’t good enough or talented enough or experienced enough to overcome so many looooong stretches without scoring. Go without putting up points, and it turns quickly for teams who are young and don’t know how to push past that adversity.

One minute, a nine-point is shaved to two. The home crowd finally stirs. The Irish get confident. The game gets interesting.

And then, another cold streak hits. Missed shots. Missed opportunities.

Notre Dame staggered through stretches of 4:01, 3:30, 4:21 and 4:09 without a basket. Can’t do that in this league against these caliber of teams. It’s going to lead to another loss.

It led to another loss.

Shooting percentages of 44.8 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from 3 in the first half slipped to 24.1 and 25 in the second half for Notre Dame, the worst-shooting team in the league (.425 percent coming in). It’s hard for a young team not to dwell on so many misses and too few makes.

“It’s just a matter of moving on to the next play,” Mooney said. “It’s frustrating at times, no doubt, but you’ve got to stay confident in yourself and stay confident in your team that shots will fall and we’ll make our run.”

Gibbs needed to deliver and did. Mooney needed to deliver and did. Too few others in mustard gold stepped in and helped wrestle this game away when it was there to be wrestled away. The Irish freshmen played like freshmen the first time against the zone. They were good in some segments, not so good in others. That’s going to happen.

“We were a little young in some spots trying to figure it out,” Brey said. “The league is very unforgiving.”

For now, yes. For next week and next month, probably also true. But maybe next year, maybe not. Maybe the Irish close this one out then. But not now.

“We’re going to figure it out,” Gibbs promised. “We know how to play basketball. I trust everybody in that room one through 12. We’re a good group.

“It’s OK. The tide’s going to turn.”

Colson and Farrell and Geben may not be walking back into the locker room anytime soon, but a familiar face will be next season. Brey announced after the game that senior captain Rex Pflueger, who suffered a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 15, will return for a fifth year. Pflueger and Brey reached that conclusion Friday, a day after the captain returned from California.

Notre Dame’s entire roster as it now stands is slated to return next season. But that’s next season. Wondering how the minutes and the roles shake out can wait. For the Irish. For Pflueger.

Pflueger spent extra time back home with his mother, Rebecca, who is battling brain cancer. She underwent a second surgery Friday.

“She is in the fight of her life,” Brey said. “We need him and he needs us.”

In so many ways.

SYRACUSE (72): Dolezaj 0-2 0-0 0, Brissett 6-14 4-4 19, Battle 8-17 0-0 17, Hughes 8-16 0-0 22, Howard 3-9 0-0 8, Sidibe 0-3 0-1 0, Chukwu 1-2 0-0 2, Boeheim 0-1 0-0 0, Carey 2-4 0-0 4. Totals 28-68 4-5 72.<

NOTRE DAME (10-5): Mooney 5-11 4-6 14, Durham 2-3 2-2 6, Hubb 0-4 0-0 0, Gibbs 6-15 0-0 18, Harvey 3-11 3-4 11, Laszewski 3-8 1-3 9, Djogo 0-0 0-0 0, Goodwin 1-6 1-2 4. Totals 20-58 11-17 62.<

Halftime—Notre Dame 38-37. 3-Point Goals—Syracuse 12-29 (Hughes 6-13, Brissett 3-7, Howard 2-5, Battle 1-2, Boeheim 0-1, Carey 0-1), Notre Dame 11-33 (Gibbs 6-13, Laszewski 2-5, Harvey 2-7, Goodwin 1-4, Hubb 0-4). Fouled Out—Dolezaj, Chukwu. Rebounds—Syracuse 43 (Brissett 11), Notre Dame 35 (Mooney 14). Assists—Syracuse 11 (Howard 4), Notre Dame 16 (Gibbs 5). Total Fouls—Syracuse 15, Notre Dame 12.

Notre Dame’s John Mooney (33) shoots as Syracuse’s Elijah Hughes (33) and Bourama Sidibe (34) defend him during the Syracuse at Notre Dame NCAA men's basketball game Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.
Notre Dame’s Dane Goodwin (23) fights for a loose ball with Syracuse’s Paschal Chukwu (13) and Tyus Battle (25) during the Syracuse at Notre Dame NCAA men's basketball game Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend.