Ugly until the end, Notre Dame finds a way to unlikely overtime hoops win

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — More of the same or a squad so hardened by last season’s struggles that it's determined to find ways to figure it out?

Too soon to say for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team, which still cannot consistently make enough shots to feel good about itself in close games against quality opponents. But when times get tough, at least six games into this season, the Irish have shown that they won’t get so tight that they can't close the fight. Not like last year. At least, not yet.

There’s a deeper reservoir of resolve there. Waiting. Simmering. The Irish showed it in their previous two home games, then showed it again Thursday against a Toledo team that had this win seemingly locked down, then just gave it away. The Irish took it and ran with it, but feel good about it? Ugh.

In a bizarre night of (bad) basketball at Purcell Pavilion, an Irish team that staggered through long stretches of missed shots and no points and frustration all around dug in and got enough stops defensively, then hit enough big shots when it mattered to escape with a 64-62 overtime victory.

That this one even went an additional five minutes was nothing short of ridiculous. After the previous 40 minutes of folly, why not?

“It didn’t look good for a lot of times,” Irish coach Mike Brey said with the understatement of the evening.

It looked bad. Really bad. Like, how can the Irish lose to that team at home kind of bad. This was a game where the first to 50 points usually wins. Toledo got to 50 first. Notre Dame won.

Notre Dame (5-1) attempted a season-high 35 3-pointers; it made eight. It trailed by seven points with 4:04 left. It trailed by five with 58 seconds to go. It trailed by three with 29 seconds remaining. At one point, the Irish missed 17 of 18 shots and went five minutes without a basket. At another, it missed 10 of 11. Notre Dame went nearly nine minutes deep in the second half where only sophomore guard Dane Goodwin scored.

The Irish had a chance to tie it seconds before Nate Laszewski’s game-tying 3, but a T.J. Gibbs offering from straight on got wedged between the side of the rim and the backboard. Brey almost got tossed with a second technical. The officials nearly didn't make it out of the building after some, shall we say, interesting whistles.

The Irish again couldn’t do much right offensively, but Brey was quick to mention that they still mustered 22 defensive stops over the Rockets’ final 26 possessions. That basically won the game. They also did enough thanks to critical Rocket turnovers at crucial times, to climb back within three (55-52) with 1.5 seconds remaining.

Coming out of a timeout, it was Notre Dame ball under its basket. Rex Pflueger was the inbound man. Perfect guy for the role. He waited. And waited. And waited. The possibility of a five-second call looming large, Pflueger waited long enough to let Laszewski work himself free with the slightest sliver of space in front of the Irish bench. A big shot was coming.

Never mind that Laszewski has labored to make even wide-open looks all season. Never mind that at one point earlier in the game, he had been a collective 2-for-20 (that’s 10 percent for those non-math majors) from 3. Never mind that he had been on the bench mere seconds earlier. He was coming in hot.

“He was due, wasn’t he?” Brey said.

That he was, so Brey called the kid’s number. Told him to shoot it with confidence if he got it. He got it. He shot it. Laszewski drained a fade wing 3 off Pflueger’s inbound pass as the regulation horn sounded. The shot sent it to overtime and the building up for grabs.

“He drew up a great misdirection play and told me if I have my look, step up and take it,” Laszewski said of his head coach.

And take it with something Laszewski hasn’t shown much of this season — confidence. Like, this one’s going in, confidence. For one of the few times this season, the shot and the release looked pure. It was.

“All my coaches, all my teammates tell me I have great looks,” Laszewski said. “Just keep shooting it. It’s going to fall.”

Laszewski even told himself before the shot — that one’s going down. It did.

“Coach Brey told me to step up and take it," he said. "It gave me a lot of confidence."

Once this one went final, a certain sense of the surreal settled over the old south dome. Wait, did that just happen? If so, how? Why? Really? Yep. It did. Instead of a second loss in the last three years to a Mid-American Conference team, Notre Dame had the ultimate steal.

Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk knew it. Afterward, he wasn’t happy. With the outcome. With his team’s inability to win a game when the win was there. Holding their own against an Atlantic Coast Conference team in an ACC team’s building was of no solace. This was their game. Instead, there would be only heartache going home on the bus.

“I gotta be honest with you; that one hurts,” Kowalczyk said. “Just felt like we gave it away. I don’t care who you play, you gotta win that game.”

Just to make sure everything that just happened indeed did, Goodwin grabbed a final stats book off a table in the post-game interview room. It was proof, and maybe a little affirmation that the Irish can find a way. This month. Next month. This season.

Why? This team’s older, maybe more mentally tougher, but also the fact that it has Pflueger back in a role that has him doing more than cheering from the end of the bench in street clothes matters. It doesn't show from the final stat sheet — he went 2-of-10 from the floor – but the Irish needed Pflueger on the floor for all of his 39 minutes.

It’s about more than scoring for him. Like on the inbound pass to Laszewski to force overtime. Like his backdoor cut and layup off a T.J. Gibbs feed to give the Irish a 60-59 lead with 25 seconds remaining. Like being the calmest of influences when everything else seems to be going haywire.

Gotta have the guy in the No. 0 jersey in the game.

“I could care less about his shooting,” Brey said. “He makes every play. Big play. Clutch play. He’s such a winner.”

A glance at the final box score and the shooting percentages — yikes! — and some would say, yeah, same old Irish. Ugly. Awful. Still can’t make enough shots. So un-Brey like all over again. Still won't win enough games moving forward in the ACC by going 31.5 percent from the field, 22.9 percent from 3 and 55.8 percent from the foul line.

All true. But last year, they lose this game. And maybe Monday's against Presbyterian. Maybe last Friday's against Marshall. Instead, they won each. That should mean something, right?

“There’s a will about this group,” Brey said. “This is a great reference point no matter how bad it looks at times the rest of the year, and it will look bad.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for what's coming. Is this team different? Will this season be different?

Stay tuned.

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• NOTRE DAME 64, TOLEDO 62

At Purcell Pavilion

TOLEDO (3-2): W.Jackson 5-12 1-3 11, Knapke 7-19 2-2 16, M.Jackson 8-21 3-6 23, Alderson 1-4 0-0 3, Littleson 1-4 0-0 2, Maranka 0-0 0-0 0, Smith 0-1 0-0 0, Saunders 2-8 2-2 7. Totals 24-69 8-13 62.<

NOTRE DAME (5-1): Mooney 3-11 1-5 7, Durham 2-6 0-0 4, Hubb 3-11 0-2 6, Gibbs 3-11 4-4 11, Pflueger 2-10 3-4 8, Laszewski 3-9 2-2 10, Djogo 0-1 0-0 0, Carmody 1-1 0-0 2, Goodwin 6-13 0-0 16. Totals 23-73 10-17 64.<

Halftime—Toledo 27-24. End Of Regulation—Tied 55. 3-Point Goals—Toledo 6-27 (M.Jackson 4-12, Saunders 1-3, Alderson 1-3, Smith 0-1, Littleson 0-3, Knapke 0-5), Notre Dame 8-35 (Goodwin 4-7, Laszewski 2-7, Pflueger 1-5, Gibbs 1-6, Djogo 0-1, Mooney 0-4, Hubb 0-5). Fouled Out—Littleson. Rebounds—Toledo 53 (W.Jackson 20), Notre Dame 42 (Mooney 15). Assists—Toledo 12 (Littleson 4), Notre Dame 13 (Pflueger 5). Total Fouls—Toledo 22, Notre Dame 17. Technicals—Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.

Notre Dame’s Dane Goodwin and T.J. Gibbs (10) celebrate after winning Thursday's game in overtime against Toledo.