Immediately after the big win over Duke Wednesday night, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (20-3, 8-2) head coach Mike Brey was caught in the locker room already prepping his team for today's tilt against the Pittsburgh Panthers (14-8, 4-5).
Despite Wednesday's win, the Irish head coach was not ready to call his bunch "special" until they proved they could turn around and win on the road in an obvious let down situation in Pittsburgh. His 8th-ranked squad was unable to respond to his rally cry, however, as they faded late on Saturday and fell to the Panthers, 76-72.
No one looked more tired for the Irish than Jerian Grant, whose heroics on Wednesday earned him praise from every national outlet. Today, however, he looked drained and was ineffective on both ends of the court most of the way, exemplifying Notre Dame's struggles.
The loss was foreshadowed by an ominous start defensively, as the Panthers were allowed to hit their first five shots from the floor with relative ease. The Irish defense never made things difficult enough for long stretches to be able to pull out the win down the stretch.
The game was very back-and-forth most of the way, until the Panthers broke a 63-63 tie with a huge 8-0 run to give them a big lead with under four minutes to play. Grant seemed to find a second wind, however, as he led a rapid Irish comeback, even taking a 71-70 lead from the free throw stripe.
But a quick lay-up at the other end by James Robinson followed by a missed Steve Vasturia three sealed Notre Dame's fate in this one.
Grant finished with 14 points and just 3 assists, hardly the same player we have seen most of the season until the furious comeback attempt at the end. He was joined in double figures by Demetrius Jackson (15 points), Zach Auguste (12), and Vasturia (12).
Pittsburgh's interior attack did whatever they felt like today, with both Jamel Artis (20 points on 8 of 14 shooting) and Michael Young (16 points on 7 of 10 shooting) turning in one of their best performances of the season. In total, the Panthers shot nearly 59%, a dreadful defensive effort against one of the least-efficient shooting teams in the conference.
Highlighting Pittsburgh's offensive efficiency was their 24 assists on 31 made field goals. Robinson specifically accounted for 10 of those assists as he earned the game's lone double-double.
It is disappointing to drop a game in which Mike Brey challenged them so directly to win, but this one had trap written all over it, and frankly, the Irish had been playing with fire far too many times over the past few weeks for this not to happen at some point.
Notre Dame looks to bounce back on Wednesday night against the Boston College Eagles (9-11, 1-7). The Eagles will come to South Bend for an 8:00pm EST tip-off, with the Irish badly needing an impressive showing against one of the conference's worst teams to maintain their lofty ranking and any chance they have of winning the ACC.
Other thoughts and observations:
- With the Panthers scoring at will, especially with their forwards, this game definitely called for Austin Torres in some capacity to see if at least his energy could add something to the defensive attack. I was surprised not to see him literally at all.
- Pat Connaughton was mostly invisible, surely another victim of tired legs lingering from Wednesday night for an odd noon start time just three days later on the road.
- Nothing wrong with Notre Dame's offensive efficiency in this one, although it would have been nice if Grant or Connaughton had been a bigger factor for the first 35 minutes. Still, 10 turnovers and just 5 offensive rebounds is not a recipe for success if they are going to be that bad on the other end of the floor.
- I'm disappointed, but this is the time of year where these things happen to just about every team. It was inevitable. What's more important is to bounce back and put together some better efforts, especially against BC and the suddenly-hot Clemson Tigers coming up.
- I'll be honest, I was halfway done with my loss recap when Grant started his furious comeback attempt, making me stop in my tracks. It looked like they might have somehow done it again, which definitely makes the loss sting that much more.
- I don't think there is much else to say about this one. We'll chalk it up to tired legs or heads that weren't quite in it or something like that because they clearly only had enough gas for one of the floor this afternoon.