Good defense wasn’t good enough for No. 19 Notre Dame on Saturday against No. 8 Louisville.
Several clutch shots in the final minutes by the Cardinals resulted in a 71-64 loss at KFC Yum! Center for the Irish, a frustrating season finale for head coach Mike Brey’s team.
“We’re happy with the way we played,” junior guard Matt Farrell said. “We thought we played well enough to win. We gave ourselves an opportunity to win. They hit some big shots on their floor.
“We thought we played pretty good defense to hold them to 71 points. But a good team, good players and they hit big shots down the stretch, and it’s something we’ve got to live with.”
Notre Dame could have secured a double-bye in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament with a victory Saturday. Instead, the Irish (23-8, 12-6) will have their eye on several other Saturday games.
Should Duke beat North Carolina tonight and Florida State beats Miami, the Irish would be the five-seed in the tournament, meaning no double-bye. If UNC and Miami win, the Irish get the three-seed. If Florida State and UNC win, Notre Dame gets the three-seed.
“I told our guys, ‘I know some things can happen to give us a four-seed, but if we’re the five-seed we’ll just play Wednesday,’” Brey said. “I’m tired of it. I don’t have any energy to root for anybody else. I’ve got to root for my own guys.
“If it happens and we’re a four, that’s great. It’s difficult to get to Saturday night if you don’t have the double-bye, that’s just the reality. We’ll be ready to play whenever they ask us.”
Saturday marked a golden opportunity for Notre Dame to get a big NCAA Tournament resume win. Though already a lock for the 68-team bracket, Brey’s group — a 7.5-point underdog, according to Las Vegas — could have improved its standing and possibly gotten a higher seed with a road win at Louisville.
It wasn’t to be, however, as the Cardinals made enough plays to down the Irish. Sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell hit two key 3-pointers in the second half and sophomore forward Deng Adel hit a contested 3 over senior guard Steve Vasturia to make it 67-62 with 37 seconds left.
“Give credit to Louisville, I thought a couple guys hit big, big shots when they needed to,” Brey said. “…We gave ourselves a chance. They made some big plays and some big shots when they had to.”
Notre Dame trailed 61-53 with 4:30 left in the game before the Irish cut the deficit to two points on a Farrell layup with 50 seconds left.
As he did most of the second half, Brey opted to play zone against the Cardinals’ big front line on the ensuing possession. Adel’s 3-pointer extended the lead back to five points, and the Irish never got the ball back trailing by fewer than four points.
“They hit big shots, that’s what it came down to,” junior forward Bonzie Colson said. “That’s what they did. We played good in the 2-3 zone the whole game, and (Adel) hit that big one that hurt us.”
Colson finished with 20 points and five rebounds. Senior wing V.J. Beachem added 17 points and a team-high eight rebounds. Farrell had 11 points, the only other player in double figures.
Mitchell had 20 points for the Cardinals. Louisville out-rebounded Notre Dame 44-27.
Playing in the best basketball league in the country, Notre Dame will finish with the second-best record in the regular season, regardless of Saturday night’s games.
That alone had Notre Dame’s players proud after the game.
“We finished 12-6 last year, but no offense to the league last year, it just wasn’t the same as it is this year,” Beachem said. “To put ourselves in a great opportunity to play for a league championship was great. It’s over now and we’ve got to learn from it.”
“It’s something that is great for our program,” Colson said. “It’s the best league in the country and we’re playing at a high level on both sides of the floor. We’ve got to turn the page and continue to play with everything we’ve got.”
Despite the possibility of missing out on a double-bye, Brey remained upbeat after Saturday’s game.
The Irish had their six-game winning streak snapped, but remain a lock for the NCAA Tournament. Brey’s team is also looking forward to playing at the Barclays Center, where they’ve had success.
“Our guys are excited for March,” Brey said. “Brooklyn’s been good to us. We’re excited to go to Brooklyn and ply there. Excited to know that a week from tomorrow we’ll show up on Selection Sunday. That makes a coach’s offseason really good. When you show up on that board on Sunday, your offseason is pretty good. You don’t show up on that board, it can be a tough offseason.”
Even with the narrow loss, Brey leaves Louisville feeling good about junior forward Martinas Geben.
The 6-10 Lithuanian big man started 23 games for the Irish before the team moved to a four-guard lineup. His minutes have dwindled since, but his effort Saturday against the high-flying Cardinals was paramount.
Geben had four points, four rebounds, two steals and an assist Saturday in 16 minutes as the Irish played two forwards for much of the second half.
“I’m so pleased with Martin Geben right now,” Brey said. “…In this atmosphere against that front line to do what he did, he’s playing better now than when he started. It comes at the right time.
“I’m looking at a positive coming out of here even though we lost, that we’ve got another big that can help us in the postseason.”
Colson felt Geben’s impact in the post as well.
“It’s something I knew we were going to need and he’s performing now great,” Colson said, “and we just need him to keep it up.”
• Notre Dame finished 7-of-25 (28 percent) from 3-point range Saturday. The Irish entered the game averaging 39.3 percent from long range. Louisville was 9-of-20 (45 percent), which ended up being the difference.
Louisville finished its seventh season at the KFC Yum! Center 16-1. The Cardinals are 115-15 all-time in the building.
Senior forward Mangok Mathiang had 18 points off the bench for Louisville. He added 11 rebounds.
“He got some great angles on us,” Brey said. “We probably didn’t do as good a job of contesting him early. He got a couple of putbacks, didn’t he? He was on that backboard. He had six offensive rebounds. That’s where he hurt us. Their size wears on you over 40 minutes and their front line did wear us down a little bit.”