Behind a lights-out offensive attack for much of the season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (24-5, 12-4) have staked out a spot for over a month in the nation's top ten. Taking on the Syracuse Orange (18-10, 9-6) on Tuesday night, however, the Irish looked nothing like the outfit that has earned a ranking amongst the nation's elite.
Notre Dame came out ice cold, as evidenced by their season low 22 first half points on just 20 percent shooting, a far cry from the usual efficiency that everyone has gotten used to watching this squad. It was a minor miracle - with some gutsy defense - that the Irish only trailed by 5 at halftime.
Shortly after the break, it looked as though Notre Dame was back on track, quickly cutting the lead to one and seizing momentum. But despite multiple opportunities to take the lead, untimely turnovers and off-the-mark shooting undid a nice start to the second half, allowing Syracuse to take back control of a game that was slipping.
The Orange had a firm grip on this one but for the foul trouble of Rakeem Christmas, whose fifth foul (shortly after a Zach Auguste put-back dunk energized an apathetic Purcell Pavilion) seemed to change the complexion of the game.
But the heroics of Syracuse's Trevor Cooney halted an Irish run and regained control yet again for the Orange, first with an impossible fall-away two from the corner on a terrible possession with the shot clock nearly expired after the Irish had closed the lead to four. Notre Dame fought to close the gap again to two, at which point Cooney nailed a deep three with Steve Vasturia completely in his face and another shot clock nearing its expiration.
The Irish hung in there with some key shots and free throws and nearly forced two turnovers in the final minute, either of which would have given them a chance to tie or take the lead. But they could not get the call on either near turnover and ultimately fell just short, dropping a rare home game.
Bonzie Colson was the star of the show for the Irish with a team-high 16 points, likely earning the freshman more minutes in the coming weeks. He also forced a few turnovers and just generally was a rare source of energy for a team and home building that did not have much of that all evening long.
Pat Connaughton earned himself a double-double with 13 points and 15 rebounds, a game-high. Jerian Grant nearly joined him with 13 points and 9 assists despite a terrible 2 of 9 (including 0 of 6 from deep) from the field. Zach Auguste was much more efficient for his 10, going 5 of 7.
Syracuse was led by B.J. Johnson off the bench, scoring a game-high 19. Rakeem Christmas pitched in another double-double before fouling out with 14 and 12. But the story late was Cooney, who was playing poorly until scoring 7 of his 11 late to hold off the charging Irish.
The Irish get another week off until they head to Kentucky to take on the Louisville Cardinals (22-6, 10-5) and get back on track. Despite the loss, Notre Dame actually clinched at least fourth place in the ACC and earned an automatic double-bye for the ACC Tournament. Next Wednesday, they have a chance to clinch third place with a win over Louisville and avoid likely 5th place North Carolina. The game tips off at 7:00pm and will be airing on ESPN2.
Other Thoughts and Observations:
- From an Irish point of view, it's hard not to look at this as one where Notre Dame beat itself. 3 of 22 from deep, with many open looks and very few of those 19 misses evidently the result of any great defense on the part of Syracuse, was really the only relevant stat. I can't remember a game where any Irish team, let alone this one, shot that poorly. That they still almost won makes the pill that much more bitter to swallow, that they couldn't even hit a couple of those 19 misses to put this one in the win column.
- I thought Notre Dame tried a little too hard to beat the zone and out-thought themselves at time. I understand not being able to operate the normal offense, but they just didn't have the same movement and activity about them as they usually do. That said, they got a ton of open looks, so maybe I'm letting the outcomes dictate my thinking here a little too much when their efforts to get those looks were actually pretty sound. Tough game to evaluate.
- It was laughable how long it took the refs to finally foul out Rakeem Christmas. There were a half dozen times that his fifth could have been called before he got a small piece of Bonzie Colson's wrist with about five minutes to go.
- On a related note, the game-by-game differences in the amount of contact that refs are going to allow is so frustrating. The "rule changes" last year have just gone by the wayside, and the inconsistency with which this game is being called coast-to-coast just has to end.
- It really sucks to lose with a week layoff. It really, really sucks that a Louisville team that can't do much of anything right lately has a week to right the ship before the Irish head to the Yum next Wednesday.
- It was really disappointing to see the entire defense just give up on Trevor Cooney's drive and lay-in late to push the Syracuse lead to seven with just under two minutes to go right after it looked like the Irish were right back in it. The game was not even close to being over but Notre Dame just gave up on that possession.
- C'mon, Demetrius. We need you, man.