It couldn’t have started much uglier.
Fittingly, the climax of Notre Dame’s back-and-forth affair against North Carolina Wednesday night at Purcell Pavilion was scrappy, too. Down one with 30 seconds left, the Irish trusted their defense to get a late stop, just as they had on Saturday at Virginia. As on Saturday, and so often this season, Mike Brey’s team came up short.
“You know the drill,” the Irish head coach said after his team forced two misses in the final 15 seconds but failed to secure the rebound on both occasions. “How many (rebounds) squirted out of our hands?”
North Carolina (17-11, 9-8 ACC) made its free throws and hung on for a 63-59 win to stay in or around the NCAA Tournament bubble. That subject’s been irrelevant for the Irish (10-18, 2-15 ACC) for a few months now, long before they lost their 10th single-digit game of the season.
“We keep getting in position,” Brey said, “but we can't finish. We put ourselves in position, but that's kind of been the recipe (this season)."
Brey admitted that, at this point, the issue is mostly mental. All five graduate students played over thirty minutes besides Marcus Hammond, who exited early in the second half with a sprained toe. Brey said he doesn’t expect the guard to be back for Saturday’s game at Wake Forest.
“I'm going to ask our sports psychologists to analyze all of them tomorrow,” Brey said, who coached in his penultimate home game at Purcell Pavilion before he steps down at the end of the season after 23 years at Notre Dame. “We're going to have 15 couches out, let guys express themselves.”
One reporter asked Brey why the couches were just coming out now for a team sitting second-to-last in the ACC.
“They've been out since Christmas, brother,” Brey replied.
Ugly with a capital “U”
At the under-8 timeout Wednesday night, Notre Dame and North Carolina were shooting a combined 8-for-40 from the floor. UNC led 15-10, largely courtesy of a strong start by grad student big man Pete Nance, who had nine points in the first eight minutes.
Out of the timeout. however, no Tar Heel on the floor had any points. Not that the Irish were in better shape.
Trey Wertz had five. Cormac Ryan had five.
That was it.
It looked like a game Notre Dame, near the top of the ACC in 3-point percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio but not much else, looked destined to lose.
But then Marcus Hammond hit a 3, the Irish forced a shot-clock violation and Ryan, as he has so many times for the Irish over his career, provided a spark. Ryan muffed his finish after a strong drive, but he caught the Tar Heels napping, racing under the hoop and snatching his own rebound. He kicked the ball out to Dane Goodwin, who made a corner 3 for his first points of the game.
The Irish had their first lead of the night. Suddenly, they looked like the team many expected to see before the season began. Wertz was making NBA 3s, while Hammond — driving, pulling up, and hitting a trey himself — led the Irish with nine in the first half. Purcell Pavilion, despite being packed with plenty of Carolina blue, found its voice as the Irish went on a 17-4 run to close the half.
Maybe most notably, the Irish were ready, as Brey has pleaded all season, to finally “put a chest on somebody.” Nate Laszewski went scoreless in the first half but took a big charge into the under-8 timeout. Matt Zona (Matt Zona!) was helping Ven-Allen Lubin keep Andre Bacot in check, hearing his name chanted after a strong offensive board. Bacot had 21 in the Tar Heels’ comfortable home win over the Irish in January, but he had just four in the first half Wednesday.
“I don’t have any deep stuff.”
The Tar Heels entered the locker room down 27-19 after shooting 0-for-11 from 3, but preseason No. 1 UNC punched back after what Tar Heels’ head coach Hubert Davis termed “heated discussion” in the locker room. The Irish, per usual over the last few seasons, looked shaky against full-court pressure. Marcus Hammond had the ball poked away in the early going, resulting in Nance hitting UNC’s first 3 of the night as the Tar Heels went on a 15-4 run to take a 34-31 lead.
UNC dominated the boards in the second half, scoring 16 second-chance points to Notre Dame’s three. Caleb Love and Bacot, who both led all scorers with 16 points, had 14 and 12 in the second half, respectively.
The Irish hung around, though. With just under 2:30 to go, Ryan, who led Notre Dame with 14 points, grabbed his own miss from 3, shrugged off two UNC defenders along the baseline and finished at the rim to cut the Tar Heels’ lead to 55-54.
J.J. Starling, coming off the bench after a string of tough shooting nights, again cut the UNC lead to one with 30 seconds to go, finishing one of his several rugged drives in the second half to make it 59-58.
After going scoreless in the first half, Starling finished with 10 points.
“I was worried about him because he's searching a little bit,” Brey said of his freshman guard, who had no points last time out against Virginia. “And I thought he really responded well.”
The Irish, however, didn’t earn a final chance to win it, like they had before Goodwin’s miss at the buzzer in the 57-55 loss in Charlottesville Saturday. It was more like the valiant effort at Duke last Tuesday, where the Irish gave up a late 3 in another four-point loss.
Davis mentioned how UNC has also been in similar positions before. Against NC State, Miami, Duke, Pittsburgh. The Tar Heels didn’t get the job done on those occasions. That’s why they’re still fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives. On Wednesday night, however, UNC closed.
The Irish didn’t. That’s why a miraculous ACC Tournament run in Greensboro is their only chance at the Big Dance. They’ll go again Saturday at Wake Forest, who beat the Irish by 17 in South Bend three weeks ago.
“I've been very matter of fact with them,” Brey said of his message to his team. “I don't have any deep stuff.”
“Other than let's go to Winston Salem and get in position again.”