Another frustrating finish for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — When it was over, and a 13-point lead with 10:04 remaining was not enough for the home team to handle, Rex Pflueger took the Wilson leather game ball and slammed it down hard off the floor.

Sophomore guard Dane Goodwin walked near the east basket with his hands above his head. Another big night lost in the loss, power forward John Mooney wandered near midcourt, where several visiting fans attempted to rush the floor.

Notre Dame was thisclose from beating a ranked team for the first time since November 2017, but couldn’t do enough down the stretch to close it out. Instead of taking control of fifth place in the Atlantic Coast Conference with a big win, their biggest in so many seasons, the Irish were dropped in a three-way tie for seventh and again left to pick up only the pieces following a 73-71 loss to No. 7 Florida State late Wednesday.

Trent Forrest sealed this one with a rebound of his own missed shot with 3.8 seconds remaining. Florida State led for all of 19 seconds — 16 of those earlier in the evening and then the last three.

“Trent Forrest drove; he missed the shot; he got the offensive rebound and put it up; he made a good play,” Mooney said of the final sequence.

The frustration over letting this one slip away festered after the final horn and spilled over into the post-game procedures. Instead of taking a few minutes in the locker room to be with his team, or with his thoughts, Brey was out for his post-game radio interview minutes after the playing of the alma mater. He sat down on a high-top stool for his customary interview, slipped on his headphones, then tossed them away and stalked off.

The entire arena went silent. Nobody was sure what they’d just seen — either in the closing seconds of the game or immediately after it.

Minutes later in the post-game interview auditorium, Mooney sat down and waited six seconds to be asked a question. When one wasn’t immediately offered, he tried to get up and leave, then sat back down. The players’ post-game press conference lasted 60 seconds.

Brey met the media for 2:40.

What else could the players possibly say? What could the head coach say? What questions could possibly be asked of them/him at that moment? What other type of spin could they/he put on this one? It all was so obvious — Florida State has the players and the poise to win a game like it had just won. Notre Dame doesn’t. Didn’t last year. Still don’t have it this year. Used to have it. All of it. That’s a fact that doesn’t sit well with Brey, but it’s one he has to own.

“Feel for our guys, but we got what we deserved,” Brey said. “There were 15 NBA scouts here. They weren’t here for any of our guys. They were here for their guys. I love our guys.”

Which means .... what?

Fill in the blank.

Outscored 25-10 the final 10:04, it was the 21st consecutive game against a ranked team that Notre Dame (18-12; 9-10 ACC) couldn’t win. It was the sixth league loss for the Irish in a game decided by one possession.

It was too much M.J. Walker down the stretch for the Seminoles. The guard scored 13 straight points late in the second half and 21 in the game. What made it so difficult to defend him?

“I don’t remember,” Brey said. “I don’t even remember. We tried a little zone. We tried a little bit of everything. We had no answers for him.”

Notre Dame was up 13 and seemingly rolling before Florida State ripped off eight unanswered, part of a 13-2 run that brought the visitors back within two, 63-61, with just over five minutes remaining. Just when it looked like this might be an easy night, it was back to game situations. Devin Vassell tied it at 63 with a floating jumper in the lane and 3:21 remaining. Notre Dame had gone over three minutes without a basket and missed five in a row and was one of its last nine. So where do they turn for a basket?

How about a Pflueger corner 3 in front of the Irish bench. When that fell, it put the Irish up three with 2:55 remaining. Pflueger was scoreless prior to that basket, but there he was again, doing something big when something big was needed.

The good vibes lasted less then a minute. Walker was fouled by Nate Laszewski shooting a corner 3. He missed the shot, but made all three free throws to tie it at 66 with 2:40. On, once again, to game situations.

“The ball didn’t go in the rim as much as we wanted it to,” guard Prentiss Hubb said of the late-game difficulties doing anything well.

Mooney registered his 25th double double for points (16) and rebounds (11). It was his 16th in league play, which broke the previous single-season record held by Tim Duncan. Hubb finished with a game-high 24 points.

“He kind of had his way with us in the first half,” said Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton. “He’s an excellent player.”

Leading for pretty much the entire way up to that point, Notre Dame finally pushed its advantage into double digits with 16 minutes and change remaining on a Goodwin 3. It was part of a big second-half burst from Goodwin, who was pulled a couple times by Brey earlier in the game for various shortcomings. That didn’t bother the sophomore, who returned and had 10 points before the first 10 minutes of the second half had elapsed.

A corner 3 from Hubb to beat the shot clock stretched the Irish lead to 13 with 10:04 minutes remaining. An Irish scoring drought that stretched toward three minutes and allowed the Seminoles to get as close as eight made this one interesting. But a Goodwin floater allowed everyone to breathe a bit easier. For a few possessions, anyway.

Two 3-pointers from Walker sliced that 10-point Irish lead to four in two possessions.

Hubb connected on his first six shots, including four from 3, and added three free throws for a game-high 19 points at the break. He was the best guard on the floor, the best player on the floor, for long stretches. Except for when he called for a pass from Gibbs in transition and fired up a 3-pointer that hit … nothing.

Hubb and Mooney combined for 35 points in the first half. The rest of the Irish had seven.

What had the makings of an electric evening with a big-time quality opponent in the building lost a whole lot of its juice after Notre Dame lost Saturday at Wake Forest, which was the second-to-last place team in the league. It also all but torpedoed any realistic chance Notre Dame had of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017.

Win or lose Wednesday, the only hope for the Irish is to earn the ACC’s automatic bid by winning the league tournament.

Notre Dame closes the regular season Saturday at home against Virginia Tech.

FLORIDA STATE 73, NOTRE DAME 71, at Purcell Pavilion

Florida State (73): Gray 1-5 4-6 7, Osborne 1-5 2-2 4, Forrest 7-16 1-1 15, Walker 6-10 5-5 21, Vassell 6-11 1-1 13, Williams 2-7 1-2 5, Evans 1-2 0-0 2, Olejniczak 3-4 0-0 6, Polite 0-1 0-0 0, Koprivica 0-0 0-0 0, Wilkes 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 27-62 14-17 73.

Notre Dame (71): Durham 2-2 0-0 4, Mooney 7-14 0-0 16, Gibbs 1-7 3-4 5, Hubb 8-13 3-3 24, Pflueger 1-4 0-0 3, Goodwin 5-10 4-4 16, Laszewski 1-5 0-0 3, Djogo 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-55 10-11 71.

Halftime_Notre Dame 42-35. 3-Point Goals_Florida St. 5-17 (Walker 4-8, Gray 1-1, Forrest 0-2, Osborne 0-2, Vassell 0-2, Williams 0-2), Notre Dame 11-32 (Hubb 5-9, Goodwin 2-5, Mooney 2-6, Laszewski 1-3, Pflueger 1-3, Gibbs 0-6). Rebounds_Florida St. 31 (Forrest, Williams 7), Notre Dame 30 (Mooney 11). Assists_Florida St. 8 (Forrest 3), Notre Dame 14 (Hubb 6). Total Fouls_Florida St. 16, Notre Dame 14.

Notre Dame power forward John Mooney competes for control of the ball with Florida State’s Malik Osborne during Wednesday’s game.