It was another cold night in South Bend. Inside the Purcell Pavilion, the action was heating up as the Fighting Irish got a visit from the North Carolina Tar Heels. The Irish came in off a loss to Georgia Tech and the Tar Heels came in with a win against the Boston College Eagles. The Irish were again down two key players going into Saturday’s matchup, Bonzie Colson (out for 7 more weeks) and Matt Farrell (day-to-day). While Farrell was in pre-game shoot around and warm-ups, he didn’t log any minutes.
During the pre-game introductions, the Fighting Irish introduced Sophomore John Mooney into the starting line-up for the first time. He made the most of his first start by putting the first Irish points on the board with a three pointer.
In general, the Irish and the Tar Heels got off to a slow start. The offenses exchanged shots for a portion of the opening minutes. The Irish stuggled on the offensive side of the ball, shooting 11-31 from the field including 5-12 from three-point range in the first half. Further, the Irish defense failed to shut down Tar Heels forward Luke Maye, who felt like the entire Tar Heels offense and defense in the first half, with 13 points and 9 rebounds.
For the Irish, it was more of a whole team effort. T.J. Gibbs led all Irish scorers with 9 points, including a three pointer, and 3 rebounds. Martinas Geben followed in points with 8, including a three pointer, and 4 rebounds. The Irish spread the wealth when it came to shooting from beyond the arc with John Mooney, Rex Pflueger, and Nikola Djogo all cashing in from downtown.
The Irish started the second half with a quick 4-0 run. Most importantly, they were scoring points in the paint, which they failed to do in the first half, notching only 6.
The Irish were scoring but not from the foul line. After the Irish hit 10-12 free throws in the first half, the Tar Heels played more disciplined ball and the Irish were only 2-3 from the charity stripe in the second half.
The Irish Defense, on the other hand, was able to solve the mystery of Luke Maye holding him to just 5 points for the half. After the Tar Heels converted on two free throws, the Fighting Irish took possession of the ball with seven seconds remaining on the clock. Gibbs came up short on a game-winning layup attempt and then a put-back as the final buzzer sounded.
The Irish lost a heart breaker at home to the Tar Heels 69-68. T.J. Gibbs led all Irish scorers with 19 points, including 3-6 from three-point range, and 5 rebounds. Martinas Geben followed with 14 points and 9 rebounds. Nikola Djogo had a career night with 12 points, including 3-6 from three-point range, and 4 rebounds.
Coach Williams made an opening statement on the Tar Heels win. “I feel the luckiest maybe I’ve ever felt in my life at the end of a basketball game…It’s a frustrating game, we had so many things and yet Notre Dame played so hard. I thought they played harder than us. I thought they played smarter than us.”
Coach Williams went on to talk about Djogo and his team’s efforts in defending him. “[Djogo has] made four threes all year and he made three of them today, but the thing that was frustrating me was that we didn’t have him picked up properly.”
I asked Coach Williams about his team’s slow start and how he planned to address it going forward. He replied, “Get some toughness out there—I’m gonna question; I’m gonna challenge ‘em. I mean, by golly, if you’re gonna step up and take a shot, make the sucker…Truthfully, our best five players are going small. But, if we can’t get a dadgum rebound, I don’t care how small we wanna go, I’m going to put some guys in there to get a rebound…and offensively, I think we’re sort of–in my opinion–we’re standing too much watching one guy dribble the ball.” After his answer, Williams turned his frustration into laughter among the media as he looked for his security detail and asked him if he wanted to switch places, stating his guard likely had “as good an idea of what the crap just happened as I do.”
Coach Brey came into the post-game and made his opening statement. “Man, I feel for our guys. We battled so hard. It’s a tough one. That’s a tough one to swallow, ‘cause you feel you’re gonna get it today. Again, I loved our mental and physical toughness throughout. Some of our younger guys are being thrown into some real tough game situations and making some really impressive plays. That can only help us in the long-term.”
Coach went on to talk about Matt Farrell potentially returning on Tuesday, saying that he needs to get him “back in practice on Sunday and Monday. If it goes well, start him. It’s time for him to come back. We have done a heck of a job without him. but we need him.”
Despite the fact that Irish won the second half, something that Brey had previously pointed out that his team needed to do, I was more interested in the first half and how the Irish could reduce second chance points from their opponent. Coach’s response, “They’ve got great size. They’ve always been a great rebounding team/program. You’re going to give up some put backs against them. For the most part we absorbed it. We absorbed it. We had a couple of our own. So, I’m am not losing any sleep because we rebounded well against a big team and 20 offensive rebounds is impressive…We need to keep encouraging that.”
Next up for the Fighting Irish are the Louisville Cardinals this Tuesday at 7 PM on ESPN2. #GoIrish