North Carolina just too good down the stretch for Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND — Of course this one was going to go deep into the second half with the outcome in doubt, some drama building in the old building.
A basket here, a defensive rebound there, a possession of good offense, maybe even some luck at the end of a shot clock or the game and it might swing the way of Notre Dame.
The basketball Gods long stopped smiling on this Irish program this season, one that we were reminded again late Wednesday cannot end soon enough. Too many losses. Too many gut-punches. When’s it all going to stop? March? Thankfully. We’re down to a handful of days — 14 tops — before everything gets packed away and the program moves in a different direction in search of a new coach, a new cast of characters, a new chapter.
Close this all out already. Please?
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In a season that was long given up as a lost cause, Notre Dame still did what Notre Dame has done of late. It battled. Deep into the second half. Deep into the closing minutes, against an opponent it had no business hanging with for that long. Just as it did last week at Duke and at Virginia, Notre Dame did at home against North Carolina.
With the same freakin’ outcome.
Close, but not close enough.
Good but not good enough.
Competitive, but not all that confident.
The Irish couldn’t make that one key play. Instead of winning for the first time in forever (well, since Jan. 28, which seems like forever), Notre Dame lost its sixth in a row and for the 10th time in the last 11, 63-59.
“I feel for our guys because we keep getting in position but we can’t finish,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “That’s kind of been the recipe.”
Brye joked that he would ask the school’s sports psychologist to swing by practice Thursday and analyze his guys, maybe get to the root of the reason why what keeps happening has been stuck on repeat. Play well, play a close game, lose a close game.
“We’re going to have 15 couches out and have guys express themselves,” Brey said.
Now is the time for couches?
“They’ve been out since Christmas, brother,” Brey said. “It becomes very mental, no question about it.”
Notre Dame has lost its last five by a combined 18 points. That includes losses by four, by two, by four, by six and by two. Get even a few of those games, and everything about this season looks a little different, however slightly. Really. Instead, this one was just another reminder that a season going nowhere continues on its current one-way/dead-end road of depression.
Battle and compete? Fight? Notre Dame (10-18; 2-15) might earn a coveted double-bye in next month’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament if those traits determined the league’s top four. It would be different if the veteran Irish decided to pack it in and pack it up right around the time head coach Mike Brey did last month. But they haven’t. Well, maybe for a game (Wake Forest) or two (Boston College), but for the most part, they’ve come to work each day wanting to get better, wanting to win.
“This has been a hard year,” Brey said in the understatement of understatements. “They come in and keep competing. I give our seniors credit for coming in. Keep competing.”
Trouble is, it reaches a point where the compete tank hits empty. It’s just not in them. Not this group.
Notre Dame has no business taking the game at Duke down to the closing seconds. It did. It has less business having a chance to win at then-No.7 Virginia. The Irish almost won. Same story Wednesday. Look at Carolina’s frontline. Look at Carolina’s guards. Look at its athleticism.
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Their bigs are better. Their guards are better. Their program is better. But there was Notre Dame, overcoming a sluggish/shaky/sinful start (the Irish opened 5-of-23 from the field) but somehow still grabbing an eight-point lead at the break. The way this one started, there was one team destined not to break 20 points the first 20 minutes. But that team wasn’t supposed to be North Carolina. Still, there the Tar Heels were, with only 19 points at half.
It was only a matter of time before the Tar Heels did what they did in the second half. Pound it inside to power forward Armando Bacot. Play the proverbial volleyball on the backboard, where a missed shot often was a good shot. Because nobody in the conference, nobody in the country, chases down missed shots like the guys in Carolina blue. Once, twice, three times. Sometimes four, and Carolina kept coming. Kept finding its way to loose balls and missed shots and multiple chances on the glass.
“They’re a little much for you,” Brey said. “They’ve got athletic ability from every position and that’s hurt us at times. Not only in this game.”
In almost every game.
Wednesday, it was all too much for Notre Dame to absorb. It could play adequate defense up until the first miss, but play it again after the second and third and fourth miss? Wasn’t going to happen. Didn’t happen.
“We defended fabulously,” Brey said. “They’re going to get to the backbaord because they’re athletic as heck. We had chances with two defensive rebounds we couldn’t hold on to. That’s kind of been who they are.”
North Carolina scored 28 points in the paint in the second half and finished with a crushing 23-9 advantage in second-chance points. In a season void of answers, Notre Dame had none for North Carolina’s relentless pursuit of offensive rebounds.
In the end, that’s what did these Irish in. They knew it could happen. They watched it happen. There was no counter. How could there be a counter? Can they find a consistent second big on the waiver wire? No.
In two weeks, it all will be over, No more missed opportunities. No more hard-luck losses. No more basketball. For this program, that will be something they haven’t had in so long.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.
NORTH CAROLINA 63, NOTRE DAME 59
NORTH CAROLINA (63): Black 2-11 2-2 6, Nance 3-12 5-5 11, Bacot 7-15 2-5 16, Davis 5-10 2-2 12, Love 5-11 4-4 16, Johnson 1-5 0-0 2, Dunn 0-4 0-0 0, Trimble 0-0 0-0 0, Nickel 0-0 0-0 0, Washington 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 23-69 15-18 63.
NOTRE DAME (59): Laszewski 1-5 2-2 4, Lubin 1-1 0-0 2, Goodwin 3-6 0-0 7, Hammond 3-5 2-2 9, Ryan 6-18 0-0 14, Starling 4-9 2-4 10, Wertz 5-14 0-1 13, Zona 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-58 6-9 59.
Halftime: Notre Dame 27-19. 3-Point Goals: North Carolina 2-23 (Love 2-6, Black 0-3, Dunn 0-3, Nance 0-3, Davis 0-4, Johnson 0-4), Notre Dame 7-23 (Wertz 3-7, Ryan 2-8, Goodwin 1-2, Hammond 1-2, Starling 0-1, Laszewski 0-3). Rebounds: North Carolina 47 (Black, Bacot 11), Notre Dame 30 (Laszewski 9). Assists: North Carolina 8 (Nance 5), Notre Dame 10 (Ryan, Wertz 3). Total Fouls: North Carolina 16, Notre Dame 16.