Plenty of heart and even more heartbreak in latest Irish upset bid
Of course it wasn’t going in.
Not this season. Not for this team.
For the final 3.9 seconds in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday afternoon, Notre Dame brilliantly teased its remaining fan base again. Just like it did against Duke and Virginia Tech, and North Carolina State, etc., etc.
In a season full of soul-slugging losses, the Irish added more scar tissue when it fell, 57-55, to No. 7-ranked Virginia (21-4, 13-3 for first place in Atlantic Coast Conference).
At this point, it doesn’t even seem fair.
At 10-17 (2-14 ACC), Notre Dame is on pace to deliver outgoing Mike Brey his worst season in 28 total as a head coach.
It just doesn’t feel that way.
Mostly because the competitor in this club keeps showing up for the opening tip.
But back to those final four seconds at John Paul Jones Arena.
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Point guard Trey Wertz was fouled as he crossed the 10-second line on ND’s final possession. He hit his first free throw to pull Notre Dame within 57-55, and Brey called a timeout to deliver the plan to Wertz.
“You got a good miss in you?” Brey asked him.
Wertz laughed and went back to the line, intentionally missing the second free throw, the ball bouncing off the back of the rim and high into the middle of the lane. A mosh pit of hands went up, and it appeared Notre Dame’s 6-foot-10 Nate Laszweski got the biggest piece of it to tip it back to Wertz, still near the free throw line. He flipped it back to Dane Goodwin, who was waiting on the left wing, just beyond the 3-point line.
“I see (the shot’s) in the air, and I'm thinking, ‘You know, don't you think we kind of maybe deserve this one…?” Brey said about his thoughts at the time.
As his shot fell off the rim, Goodwin bowed his head, enduring his second narrow 3-point miss from that spot over the final 10 seconds of the game.
There, of course, was more to the loss than the one or two last attempts.
• The Irish were facing a team allowing 34.5% success from the 3-point line coming in, which ranked 28th in the country. But ND was worse and went just 7-for-26 on 3-point attempts for 26.9% — 10% under its average — and hit just four of its final 19 attempts. Overall, they took more 3 than twos — 26-25 — a few desperate heaves as the shot-clock wound down.
• Notre Dame didn’t get its first offensive rebound until 14:30 remained in the game, that by 6-9 junior Matt Zona, who had six rebounds and, surprisingly, his first 3-pointer of the year in four attempts. The Irish had only three offensive rebounds to Virginia’s seven.
• Both teams protect the ball well, Notre Dame ranking first in the country with 8.8 turnovers a game. But the Irish could coax only six from the Cavaliers.
• Notre Dame shoots at a 45% rate from the field, but was 39% for the afternoon.
The Irish were in this game because they defended well — something they’re not known for — limiting the Cavs to 37% percent from the field, including 29% (7-for-24) from the 3-point line.
“You know what's neat about them?” a proud Brey said of his club. “I told them this the other day. I said, ‘You know, fellas, we don't really have long together. I'm a senior, too.’ I said, ‘We’ve got a couple of weeks together’ – and I've coached some of them for five years – ‘and everybody’s watching how we handle stuff, how we come across in these games on national TV.’
“I give our guys a lot of credit. That's our seniors. They have hung in and competed. They’ve had their hearts broken like this many times, and it's my job to pick them up and start talking about the North Carolina game Wednesday (at 9 p.m. EST in Purcell Pavilion).”
Brey declined an opportunity to be recognized in front of the 14,230 on hand at John Paul Jones Arena, but he did accept some Irish whiskey from Virginia coach Tony Bennett and his staff.
In a game that featured eight lead changes and five ties, Brey probably thought more than once that he might be able to break it open for a celebratory swig. Especially after his team started to find some traction toward the end of the first half to recover from a nine-point deficit and get it to 29-25 by the break.
The Irish went on a 13-2 run, covering the end of the first half and the start of the second, to get a 34-33 lead with 15:34 to play, with contributions across the board.
Laszewski finished with 18 points, a few over his average, and eight rebounds, and Goodwin had a dozen points.
Marcus Hammond finished with 10, including a tough, high-pressure shot through contact in the lane to get the Irish to 55-52 with 2:16 to go and two foul shots with 24.1 seconds left to make it 55-54.
But Kihei Clark, a 5-10 grad student, who had four assists to set the Cavaliers’ career record Saturday, had a big finish with five points over the last 7:41 to total 15. His last two came on free throws with 22.6 seconds to play for a 57-54 Virginia lead.
“You’ve got to give credit to Virginia,” Brey said. “They've got a confidence about them to go ahead and finish. And Clark, hopefully, it's the last time I'll see him. He's the ultimate winner. I said ‘You are a big-time winner man.’ I’ve just been so impressed with his career.”
What remains consistent is Virginia’s smart, intense defense. It showed against two Irish freshmen who were seeing the intensity of it for the first time. Both were scoreless.
Guard JJ Starling, averaging 12 points a game, got off just two shots in his 14 minutes — he averages 30 minutes a game — and forward Ven-Allen Lubin (6.5 points a game) averaging 17.7 minutes a game, played only seven and was 0-for-1 with zero rebounds.
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