NOTRE DAME, Ind. - All it took was a couple of minutes of live action Wednesday night at Purcell Pavilion to come to a stark realization.
The better team was wearing green and gold, and the Irish were in their home whites.
North Dakota State shot 50.9 percent from the field, led by 6-foot-8, 250-pound Marshall Bjorkland’s 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting as the Bison (7-3) led most of the way en route to a 73-69 victory over Notre Dame (7-3) at Purcell Pavilion.
“I was very worried about this one and my worst fears came true,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “They’re very good, an old, experienced team. The big fella down low is a bear. We doubled a little early in the game and they made threes. We tried to trade twos and keep up with them.”
Notre Dame tried to shoot its way into the lead, which it held briefly early in the game and for fleeting moments in the second half. But it was too much Bjorkland and not enough accuracy as the Irish converted just 9-of-29 from three-point range, many of which were open looks.
Pat Connaughton made just 5-of-15 from three-point range, and seniors Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant were a combined 0-of-5 from behind the arc. Grant, who had scored in double figures in each of the first nine games, missed all five of his field-goal attempts, scoring all nine of his points from the free-throw line.
“You’ve got to be a little better offensively to escape them,” Brey said. “We had some great looks and we really haven’t been in a very good offensive rhythm, starting with the second half of Monday’s game (against Bryant). At some point, you’ve got to have an offensive spurt to escape a team like that, and we never could get that.”
Notre Dame took a three-point lead on a pair of Grant free throws with 12:42 remaining. But the Bison recaptured the lead on a basket by Alexander, and North Dakota State never trailed over the final 11:24.
For the Bison, the victory was a relief after several missed opportunities in recent years. North Dakota State has taken on programs such as Indiana, Minnesota and Arizona State last year, and Notre Dame and Ohio State (this Saturday) in 2013. The Bison finally were able to enjoy the fruits of their labors.
“They’ve had their hearts broken in some high major games,” said North Dakota State head coach Saul Phillips of his veteran squad. “Arizona State goes the length of the court with 1.8 (seconds) to go. They knock in a three to win. You come up one game short of the NCAA tournament.
“This will do wonders, and believe me, we’ll take advantage. There are not going to be too many guys recruited by us that don’t find out about this in the very immediate future. As a coach and the leader of this program, this is pretty cool.”
With a senior-laden squad shooting 51.3 percent from the field, the Bison came into Notre Dame and took the Irish by storm, taking a 13-12 lead at the 15:25 mark, which they would not relinquish through the rest of the first half.
The Irish regained the lead with 15:20 remaining, but couldn’t consistently find the range from three-point land. Atkins and Tom Knight both missed the front end off one-and-ones with the Irish trailing by three with just under three minutes remaining. Notre Dame never was able to slow Bjorkland down until he fouled out with 42.1 seconds left.
“That was their game plan, I guess, to go one-on-one the whole game,” said Bjorkland, who came into the game shooting 66.7 percent from the field. “Having shooters on our team really spreads out the court. When I’m able to go one-on-one, I’m pretty confident doing that, no matter who’s playing defense.”
Garrick Sherman recorded his second straight double-double for the Irish with 10 points and 10 rebounds. But he and fellow fifth-year senior big man Tom Knight were virtually helpless against Bjorklund.
“We tried to sag in to start the game and then they started hitting threes, so we had to give him space, and when somebody has six, seven, eight dribbles, it’s tough to stop him when he can spin both ways,” Sherman said.
Three other players scored in double figures for the Irish. Atkins scored 12, freshman Demetrius Jackson had 11, and Connaughton finished with a team-high 21 points. But Connaughton was just 8-of-21 from the field, continuing a recent trend of shooting inconsistency.
“They were open shots, shots we usually make,” Connaughton said. “They weren’t falling tonight, and when that’s happening, you’ve got to dig in that much harder defensively, and that’s something we struggled with.”
Bjorkland had plenty of support. Lawrence Alexander scored 16 points and grabbed 14 rebounds while Taylor Braun netted 13 points. But by and large, it was Bjorkland doing most of the damage.
“It feels good, especially for us older guys,” Bjorkland said. “We’ve had three or four high major games that we’ve lost by a last-second shot or by two points. It’s a good feeling.”
The Irish have little time to lick their wounds with Indiana on tap for Saturday in the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis. They’ll have a full week after that before taking on Ohio State in Madison Square Garden.
“I love our group,” Brey said. “There’s a lot to work with. We certainly don’t have it figured out, but I love our group. We’ll keep plugging and figure it out.
“This is a long, long run. It’s disappointing where we’re at at 7-3. But you do have two huge games coming up that can make you feel a lot better about yourself. You can’t dwell on what’s happened to date. You’ve got to turn it around.”