Four players were honored for Senior Day before Saturday afternoon's match up between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (15-15, 6-11) and Pittsburgh Panthers (22-7, 10-6) for the last Irish home game of the regular season. Guard Eric Atkins, center Garrick Sherman, forward Tom Knight, and walk-on Patrick Crowley make up the class graduating from the Notre Dame basketball program after this season.
But on an afternoon when the seniors were honored, two true freshmen became the story for Notre Dame. First, it was V.J. Beachem with a clutch three-pointer with just eight seconds left to tie the game and send it into overtime. And in the overtime period, it was all Steve Vasturia, who scored 12 of the team's 16 points and nearly willed the team to victory on his own.
But after a couple back-and-forth minutes, Pittsburgh took a lead with two minutes remaining and did not look back. The Panthers were incredible from the free throw line in overtime, going 14 of 15 from the stripe to finally wear down the Irish and earn the hard-fought victory.
The game may never have reached overtime had it not been for a bizarre timeout by Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon, as it looked like his senior Lamar Patterson had a clear path to a game-winning lay-up with about three seconds left. But Dixon apparently thought that would have been too easy, preferring to set up an off-balance jumper for Patterson as time expired, which predictably did not go in and sent the game into overtime.
Pat Connaughton led the scoring for Notre Dame with 19 points, but only 2 of those came after halftime. He was joined in double-digits by Eric Atkins (17 pts), who also had 9 assists, and Vasturia (15 pts, 6 rebs). The Irish got scoring contributions from 9 different players.
Pittsburgh had four players reach double-digits, led by Patterson with his 20 points to go with 7 rebounds and 7 assists. Talib Zanna had an impressive double-double, going for 17 points and 14 rebounds (10 offensive), leading a Panther rebounding effort that led to a +16 margin in both offensive rebounds and second-chance points.
The Irish did not do themselves any favors in this one, losing the rebounding and turnover (+7) margins, leading to 23(!) extra field goal attempts for Pittsburgh. Despite shooting over 50% from the field and three-point line, Notre Dame should have found a way to win this one but ultimately could not get out of their own way.
With the loss, it is difficult to see the team heading into the national postseason tournament season above .500. Currently at 15-15, the Irish need either a victory at North Carolina on Monday or two ACC tournament victories to accomplish that feat, which may be important for placement in any of the non-NCAA tournaments, the NIT included.
Notre Dame takes on North Carolina Tar Heels on Monday in the Dean Dome at 7pm in a bizarrely early end to the regular season. The ACC tournament tips off next Wednesday in Greensboro. If the standings hold (they likely won't), the Irish would be slated to open the tournament against Boston College.