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Men’s Basketball

Notre Dame falls to Tar Heels

| Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Everything about Monday’s game was microcosmic of Notre Dame’s season.

A first trip to an ACC opponent’s home arena.

Playing without a valuable rotation player.

Coming close, but falling in the end.

In the final game of the regular season, Notre Dame lost 63-61 to No. 14 North Carolina at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Irish senior guard Eric Atkins controls the ball during Notre Dame's 85-81 overtime loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday in Purcell Pavilion. Emily McConville

Irish senior guard Eric Atkins controls the ball during Notre Dame’s 85-81 overtime loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday in Purcell Pavilion.

“I’m really proud of our team,” Irish head coach Mike Brey told UND.com after the game. “We played with such spirit and energy to give ourselves a chance to win. They got a couple loose balls that we couldn’t quite get to, but great fearlessness. I’d like to use this second half as some momentum heading into the ACC tournament next week.”

With Notre Dame (15-16, 6-12 ACC) trailing by two in the final seconds, senior point guard Eric Atkins raced upcourt looking for the tying lay-in only to be swatted away by Tar Heels sophomore guard Marcus Paige. The loose ball fell to Irish graduate student forward Tom Knight, but he couldn’t get a shot off before time expired.

Making its first visit to Chapel Hill since 1993, Notre Dame was without senior center Garrick Sherman, who was ruled out beforehand with his “persistent hand injury.” Still, after a sluggish first half, the Irish raced narrowly in front in the second half, only to lose by two, their seventh loss by five points or fewer. Notre Dame has lost its 16 games by an average of 7.5 points.

Notre Dame led 56-55 with 3:46 remaining, but the Tar Heels surged on a 6-0 run. Atkins scored on a tough take with 8.9 seconds to go to cut the North Carolina lead to 62-61, and Paige — an 89 percent free-throw shooter entering the game — only made one of two, allowing Atkins a chance to tie the game with a two. But the Tar Heels (23-7, 13-4) squeaked out the victory and stretched their winning streak to 12 games. Notre Dame suffered its first losing regular season since 1998-99.

Not much went right in the first half for the Irish. In a rematch of the Feb. 8 tilt that the Tar Heels won, North Carolina followed a similar recipe in the opening 20 minutes: Force turnovers. Pound the offensive glass. Utilize its athleticism. Repeat. The Irish coughed it up eight times, and the Tar Heels hauled in six offensive rebounds, leading to 12 second-chance points.

But without Sherman, Notre Dame received lifts from the other two-thirds of its starting veteran trio. Junior guard/forward Pat Connaughton, playing with an ankle injury he suffered midway through the second half Saturday against Pittsburgh, began the second stanza on a 10-1 run all by himself to cut the halftime deficit to five. Atkins supplied the next seven Irish points to tie the game at 44, and freshman guard Steve Vasturia drilled a 3-pointer at the 14:17 mark to give Notre Dame its first lead of the game, 47-46.

Atkins finished with a game-high 21 points to go along with six assists, and Connaughton notched 17 points and 13 rebounds. Vasturia added 11 points.

The ACC tournament begins March 12 in Greensboro, N.C.

“We need some rest right now,” Brey said. “This is our bye week. We haven’t had one. We’ve got a couple guys banged up. Pat Connaughton needs some time. Sherm needs some rest getting back. … We’ll get back into it Thursday, Friday.

“It’s a clean slate, fresh slate, new season when you go into the ACC tournament.

The one thing our program has done the last four years in the Big East, we’ve played to the semifinals of our conference tournament. We’re very proud of that, and I’m going to talk to our guys about that a lot this week.”

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu

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About Mike Monaco

Senior Sports Writer Mike Monaco is a senior majoring in Film, Television and Theatre with a minor in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy as well as Business Economics. The O’Neill Hall native hails from the Boston area and is an aspiring play-by-play broadcaster.

Contact Mike