Crushing conclusion to Notre Dame home ACC slate

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — This one wasn’t going to get away, was it?

It couldn’t. It shouldn’t. Not on Senior Night, when a graduate student walk-on made his first career start. Not in Notre Dame’s final home game of a regular season that really could have used another win in Purcell Pavilion. Not with Irish power forward John Mooney delivering another career effort.

This had to be Notre Dame’s night, right?

Not quite.

Irish freshman power forward Nate Laszewski couldn’t convert the second of two free throws with three seconds remaining while Clemson found a way to figure it out and make the plays and score the points when it really was needed in a close game. It all added up to a 64-62 Notre Dame loss.

“It’s definitely frustrating to lose like that,” Mooney said. “That’s probably the biggest thing moving forward for this group. Being able to close games and make plays.

“That’s the bottom line.”

A sixth-straight loss saw the Irish slide to 13-17 overall, 3-14 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Notre Dame has one game remaining — Saturday at similarly struggling Pittsburgh — and it’s a massive one. Win, and Notre Dame gets a second league road win and wins for the first time in 27 days. Lose, and the Panthers and Irish finish tied for 14th at 3-15. That would drop the Irish, winners of the ACC tournament only four years ago, into last place in advance of next week’s league tournament in Charlotte, N.C.

Notre Dame finished 2-7 at home in league play, its fewest amount of home wins as a conference member, either in the ACC or Big East. Wednesday also was home loss No. 8 – the most Irish home losses since 1992-93.

Any other year, with any other group, and Notre Dame likely finds its way to a win on Wednesday. A T.J. Gibbs 3-pointer — banked in from the top of the key and celebrated as if he’d tried to do it that way — gave Notre Dame a four-point lead with under four minutes remaining. Coach Mike Brey had talked as recently as last week that part of his team’s problem this season has been not being able to get a bucket from someone with two and a half minutes remaining in a close game to make the Irish believe they’re going to win.

Notre Dame managed only four points the final 3:58. All of those were scored by.....freshmen.

When the game was there for the winning, the other team took it. Wrestled it away and ran off with a win back to South Carolina. Left the home team wondering. Again.

On Wednesday, senior guard Marcquise Reed scored four quick points, including two free throws, to help flip a four-point deficit into a three-point lead with 26.2 seconds left. Prentiss Hubb followed with a drive to get the Irish within one, 62-61, before Shelton Mitchell split two. It was 63-61 with 18.2 seconds to go.

Last-shot time for the Irish, which meant another high-degree-of-difficulty/low-percentage offering from Gibbs. He airballed a wing 3, only to have Laszewski lasso the rebound under the bucket.

“We had a good look there,” Mooney said. “Nate had a (heck) of an offensive rebound. Just couldn’t close it, man.”

Fouled grabbing the Gibbs airball, Laszewski made the first free throw before Clemson coach Brad Brownell called timeout. By design.

“Just to throw him off rhythm if you can,” Brownell said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

This year, with this Irish team, of course it worked. Brownell effectively iced the kicker. Laszewski returned and banged the second offering off the front of the rim. Ball game effectively over.

“I feel for Nate,” Brey said.

“We’re with Nate,” Mooney said. “It’s absolutely not all on him. We could have made some plays down the stretch.”

The loss wiped out another monster effort from Mooney. He led the Irish with 18 pointsand had career highs for rebounds (20) and assists (five). It was his league-leading 19th double double. Freshman Dane Goodwin shook off a recent scoring slump for 12 points, Goodwin came into the contest having scored a combined 15 his previous eight games.

Notre Dame played without two rotation players in sophomore swingman D.J. Harvey and junior wing Nikola Djogo. Harvey tweaked his right hamstring in practice the previous day while making a steal and going down the floor for a breakaway dunk. His status is doubtful for Saturday’s season finale and, likely, next week’s league tournament.

Djogo announced on Twitter earlier in the day that he will miss however many remaining games with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Their absence left the Irish with seven scholarship players, something that may be the case the rest of the year, however long that goes. If that’s the case, the Irish won’t be able to go five-on-five in practice from now until whenever it ends. Can’t get anyone else hurt.

Long before both went down, Brey decided to start graduate student Liam Nelligan, a two-year member of the program as a walk-on. Brey decided Sunday back in Louisville to give Nelligan a start, something he’s never before done with a walk-on on Senior Night.

“It’s a pretty surreal experience,” said Nelligan, raised a “huge” Notre Dame fan in LaGrange Park, Ill. “When Coach told me, obviously a huge honor. It was really cool and something I’ll never forget.

“It’s kind of been a dream come true.”

Why start a walk-on now? Why not, Brey said. In a year unlike any other, can’t hurt. He felt it helped.

“It pumped our guys up,” he said.

Introduced last, Nelligan played the first 1:32, went to the bench and never returned.

As good as the Irish were Wednesday, they weren’t good enough. Again.

“That’s about as good as we’ve got,” Brey said. “It’s just heartbreaking that you can’t let them enjoy a win.”

Maybe next time. Or next year.

• CLEMSON 64, NOTRE DAME 62

At Purcell Pavilion

CLEMSON (18-12): Thomas 5-10 4-6 14, Simms 1-7 1-1 3, Reed 8-13 6-6 22, Mitchell 4-7 1-2 11, Trapp 1-3 1-2 3, Skara 3-8 0-1 7, Tyson 0-1 0-0 0, White 2-4 0-0 4, Jemison 0-0 0-0 0, Newman 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-54 13-18 64.<

NOTRE DAME (13-17): Mooney 6-16 4-6 18, Laszewski 1-5 1-2 3, Hubb 3-9 0-0 7, Gibbs 4-14 4-4 14, Nelligan 0-0 0-0 0, Durham 2-3 4-4 8, Doherty 0-1 0-0 0, Goodwin 4-7 2-4 12. Totals 20-55 15-20 62.

Halftime—32-32. 3-Point Goals—Clemson 3-12 (Mitchell 2-4, Skara 1-3, Reed 0-1, Tyson 0-1, Trapp 0-1, Simms 0-2), Notre Dame 7-25 (Goodwin 2-2, Mooney 2-4, Gibbs 2-8, Hubb 1-7, Laszewski 0-4). Fouled Out—Simms. Rebounds—Clemson 32 (Thomas 8), Notre Dame 37 (Mooney 20). Assists—Clemson 9 (Skara 4), Notre Dame 12 (Mooney 5). Total Fouls—Clemson 15, Notre Dame 14. A—8,158 (9,149).

Notre Dame’s T.J. Gibbs Jr. (10) passes around Clemson’s David Skara (24) and John Newman III (15) during the first half of Wednesday’s game.