Notre Dame struggles early, falls in final seconds to upset-minded Ball State
Benjamin Padanilam | Wednesday, December 6, 2017
That was the nature of the Irish player’s lounge following No. 9 Notre Dame’s 80-77 loss to Ball State on Tuesday.
It was the reaction of Irish fans in Purcell Pavilion after the realization of Cardinals junior guard Tayler Persons’ game-winning 3-point shot sunk in.
And it was the nature of the Irish scoring attack in the first half, as they struggled to find their rhythm offensively in the first half of yet another midweek game.
Although it wasn’t against the Michigan State defense in a road environment this time around, it cost them just as dearly, as it resulted in Notre Dame finding itself on the end of one of the season’s most surprising losses.
“It’s not something to be happy about, but we’ve still got to search for it — search for our identity on that end of the floor, continue to fight and continue to defend even if we’re not hitting shots,” Irish senior forward Bonzie Colson said after Tuesday’s game of the team’s slow start.
“We didn’t come out with enough energy at first,” Irish senior guard Matt Farrell said. “Dug ourselves a hole, and we’ve got to stop doing that.”
After shooting just 37.9 percent in the first half of the season’s other loss last Thursday, the Irish (7-2) got off to an even slower start Tuesday against the Cardinals (5-4), shooting just 37 percent from the floor and seeing themselves head into the locker room with a deficit for just the third time this season — this time down 34-29 to Ball State.
“It’s tough seeing the ball almost go in and coming out a lot of the time,” Farrell said. “It’s tough, it’s frustrating. It is what it is, though — that’s basketball.”
In fact, the Irish trailed for the final 12:01 of the first half and once again struggled to connect from the 3-point line — something the team also struggled with in Sunday’s win over St. Francis Brooklyn — shooting just 2-of-10 from beyond the arc. But the deficit never grew larger than eight, as Notre Dame’s defense held Ball State’s offense to just 38.7 percent from the floor, forcing eight turnovers and coming up with five steals to keep the game within reach for the second half.
“It’s one of those games where our defense is good enough in the first half, but we’re not very good offensively, and we missed some open looks,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said. “We probably were feeling it a little bit — you get some expectations on you and you play a little tight, and I thought we did at times, so that was kind of new territory, but I can’t put my finger on us offensively, but we’ve got to figure it out.”
So, when the second half got underway, Notre Dame looked to do what it couldn’t against the Spartans (8-1) last week — come out strong, put the first half behind it and come away with the victory.
And, for a while, it seemed like the Irish would do just that.
Within the first 3:26 of the second half, Notre Dame went on a 15-6 run to turn its 34-29 deficit into a 44-40 lead. Colson had five of those 15 points, while junior guard Rex Pflueger had eight — and together, they had Notre Dame believing it would be able to overcome yet another poor first half.
But it did not.
Ball State would respond with a 3-pointer. Then a steal. Then a jumper. Then another stop and layup.
Suddenly, just over two minutes after taking their first lead of the game since the 13-minute mark of the first half, Notre Dame found itself trailing yet again, down 47-44.
From there, it would be a battle, with each team taking its own swing.
The two teams traded baskets for a stretch, trading the lead three times to bring it to a 50-49 game at the 12:37 mark with the Irish ahead.
But the Cardinals then fired their first punch, going on an 18-8 run over the next 5:35, as Persons would score seven points himself to fuel the run and give Ball State a 67-58 lead with 6:45 left.
And Notre Dame would respond.
Over the next 6:09, Notre Dame would go on a 19-10 run of its own, as Farrell would score 12 of his 14 points in the game during that stretch, including a 3 that tied the game at 77.
But it was in that last 21 seconds that Ball State delivered the knockout blow. For, despite strong defense by Pflueger, Persons would hit one final 3 — giving him 24 points on the night — to send the crowd at Purcell home quietly.
“This is the first time we’ve taken a big punch and a disappointing loss,” Brey said after the game. “The loss [to Michigan State on the road], we could feel that one coming for a while and we know they’re a heck of a team, but this is the first time we’ve really been smacked. So I’m very interested to see our demeanor.”
And the demeanor seemed to be a quiet, critical one. For Farrell and Colson, the loss served as a reality check on where the team is at this point and what needs to improve going forward.
“We’re having trouble finding the rhythm offensively,” Farrell said. “We’ve got to get back to playing Notre Dame basketball and getting in a good flow. I like our fight — we’ll obviously fight until the end every time. But [Persons] hit a big shot, they played well, we missed a lot of free throws, we didn’t execute on certain times and we’ve got to get back to the way we usually play.”
“It’s a reality check of who we are, and we’ve been praised, so it’s good to get knocked down and continue to grow,” Colson said. “We’re still searching for who we are, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We’ll continue to work, get better and continue to battle on both sides.”
And as they look ahead, the Irish — particularly their senior leaders — will use this experience to help steer the team as it grows and continues to develop.
“It’s rough, but it’s just a game,” Colson said. “We learn from it. As captains, we have to keep everybody together — we will do that — and continue to grow and keep our heads high. It’s a tough one to handle, but we’ll continue to grow and learn about who we are on both sides of the floor and get back to work [Wednesday].”
But when they look back on the game Wednesday heading into practice, the loss will serve as a reminder of how much work is yet to be done, Farrell said.
“We’re not there yet,” Farrell said. “It’s a long year, but we’re not there yet.”