It was one of the most entertaining games of the season, but ultimately, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (10-5, 1-2) now have their backs against the wall to fight for an NCAA Tournament bid, a position none of us expected them to be in this season.
The Irish fell at home to the Pittsburgh Panthers (14-1, 3-0) despite terrific comeback attempts in each half from down 18. Unfortunately for Notre Dame and the Irish faithful in a rocking Purcell Pavilion, the lifeless start to both halves was barely too much to overcome by the final buzzer.
Most expected an offensive showdown entering the game, but few probably expected just how explosive this one would be, with the teams combining for 168 points on 52% shooting from the floor. But still, for all the offensive fireworks, this game came down to rebounding and free throws as the difference in deciding it.
It's overwhelming to capture all of the up-and-downs of this rollercoaster ride of a ballgame. It started with the Irish spotting the Panthers 13 points to start the game, with 7 of them coming from Michael Young inside. Young had half of his team's points by the time the Panthers jumped out to a 28-10 lead midway through the half.
But Notre Dame point guard Demetrius Jackson crept the Irish back into the game with three-pointers on four straight possessions, cutting the lead to 11. The Irish scratched and clawed their way to only trail the Panthers by 6 at halftime.
That said, Notre Dame came out of the locker room with little fight, letting Pittsburgh extend their lead back out to 18 before the second half reached its halfway point. Irish coach Mike Brey called his last timeout in a last-ditch effort to inject some life in his team, but coming back twice from down 18 was a tough ask, now with just 11 minutes left.
But the Irish responded. They tightened up on the defensive end. They attacked the basket. They grabbed a few offensive rebounds of their own in key spots. Notre Dame slowly chipped away at the lead, and when Steve Vasturia closed the Panther lead to two with a wide open drive and lay-in, the Purcell Pavilion crowd erupted.
Then, after some back-and-forth, Notre Dame had its chance to finally tie the game, something they hadn't done since the game tipped off. Demetrius Jackson found freshman Matt Ryan open a few feet behind the arc, delivered the ball in perfect rhythm, and Ryan let it fly. Everyone in that building expected the shot to fall and tie the ballgame at 83 with seconds left.
But the ball agonizingly rattled out, leaving Pittsburgh free throws away from closing it out. They did just that, and despite the comeback effort, delivered a crushing blow to Notre Dame's season.
Jackson led the Irish with 26 points (on just 18 shots) and 6 assists. Vasturia and Bonzie Colson added 13 on an identical 6 of 9 from the field. But for all of their scoring, the Irish were badly outrebounded, especially on the defensive end, where they allowed the Panthers to grab 39% of their own misses.
Young led the Panthers with 25 points, but when he left for an extended period of time with foul trouble, Sheldon Jeter filled right in from the bench, scoring 18 from inside and at the free throw line. Jamel Artis added 19, including 5 of 9 from three-point land. The conference's leading free throw shooting team took care of business from the stripe as well, making 20 of 24 in probably the biggest factor in their victory.
Notre Dame now has its collective back against the wall if they want to earn a NCAA Tournament bid this season, having already dropped four soul-crushing losses that have really hurt their resume.
The Irish host Georgia Tech in a late 9:00pm tip-off on Wednesday evening, with the Yellow Jackets fresh off a victory over the suddenly-struggling Virginia Cavaliers. To say it is a must-win for Notre Dame is probably not an exaggeration.
Other Thoughts and Observations:
- This one hurts. It was really a chance to get back on track. I'm torn between believing that their fight in coming back really shows they are moving in the right direction versus falling behind in the first place shows that this team is going to be desperate to pick up many quality wins the rest of the way. I guess we'll see.
- I think they are now right around "last team in" territory, give or take a couple spots. The margin for error is razor thin, and the only thing that can widen it are wins against the likes of Duke, Miami, UNC, and Louisville. That's what happens when you drop 4 close games against the fellow tournament-ish teams on the schedule.
- Brey said after the game that anything is on the table regarding the rotation and specifically the starting lineup. He mentioned Rex Pflueger and Austin Torres directly in his answer and seemed pretty pissed off about his starters saying they are ready to step up defensively only to see the starts to each half we just saw with those five out there.
- I think Rex for Colson in the starting lineup makes a lot of sense. The offense just flows so much better minimizing Colson and Auguste's minutes together, and, frankly, the team can't get any worse defending the interior, so who cares if you sacrifice some size if you bring in a guy that will provide someone some resistance? Matt Ryan might make sense as well, as he has shown a willingness (even if not the bulk) to defend on the perimeter or in the post.
- Many might advocate bringing Zach Auguste off the bench. Can you do that to your senior captain without losing him? Is that giving up too much size and rebounding? I don't know. I don't have a great argument against it, but I'm skeptical that Brey would actually pull that trigger.
- I'll say this for Brey; he is clearly trying to find new combinations that work. Matt Farrell got the DNP-CD. He seemed to get fed up with V.J. Beachem for a spell in the second half (albeit briefly) for some ineffectiveness, and did the same early with Auguste last game. Using Torres more and more is his attempt at finding an answer in the paint and sending a message to his main two bigs (although, I don't think he has been good at all, to be honest). Pflueger is a regular (although he should be getting more than 9 minutes).
- Brey has traditionally been good at these mid-season turnarounds, and while this isn't as desperate of a situation as some in the past, it's clearly now or never. He's gotta find some magic, because this conference will just beat you down in a hurry.
- This team is so damn close to being a good (if not great) team, it's maddening. They keep dropping these close games, though, and last year's team seemed to win all of them after Providence. Is that a skill? Is it bad luck, or at least something that will regress to the mean? Like I said, not a lot of margin for error at this point. Gotta win most of them the rest of the way.