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Bubble popped: faint Irish tourney hopes fade in deflating loss to Cardinals

| Wednesday, February 24, 2021

As recently as Saturday, Notre Dame men’s basketball was playing well enough to merit at least some faint bubble consideration for the NCAA Tournament. The Irish had won five of seven games, including three on the road, a signature victory at Duke and breaking a seven-game losing streak to the Blue Devils. Not only that, but the sizzling Notre Dame offense led Syracuse 46-32, looking ready for their sixth win in eight games. 

Fast forward just over three days later, and it seems almost laughable that the bubble was once even in sight. Following a second half collapse, in which the Irish were outscored 43-21 in the final 20 minutes, Notre Dame turned in an absolute dud at Louisville on Tuesday night, dropping a 69-57 decision to the Cardinals — good for their second worst loss of the season.

In five halves of basketball prior to the second half at Syracuse, the Notre Dame offense was averaging 42 points per 20 minutes. Since this mini-skid commenced, they are down to 26 points per half. 

The problems plaguing the Irish on Tuesday looked eerily familiar, especially offensively, where Notre Dame simply could not get more than one player hot. While junior point guard Prentiss Hubb rebounded from a horrific effort against Syracuse to shoot 4-8 from three-point land and notch 14 points, the rest of the Irish went 3-17 from beyond the arc. 

Only graduate forward Juwan Durham also broke double digits, leading the visitors with 18 points on the night.

The game started ugly for Notre Dame, and they never looked like they were in it. Louisville, coming off a 45-point loss to UNC, hit a pair of triples for a quick 6-0 lead, and Notre Dame couldn’t get a field goal from someone not named Durham for the first eight minutes of play.

Although Louisville never truly pulled away, Notre Dame was never within one possession for the final 37 minutes of the game, despite several opportunities. The Cardinals opened up a 25-14 lead with 8:20 to play in the half, but then went scoreless for 4 minutes and 18 seconds. During that drought, the Irish shot 2-7 from the field and notched only six points. The Cardinals broke the drought with a 6-0 spurt, and ultimately, they headed to the locker room leading 33-24. 

The second half was more of the same. Louisville made enough shots to keep Notre Dame at bay, and when they left the gate open, Notre Dame seemingly couldn’t find a way through. Up 54-43 with 9:41 to play, the Cardinals didn’t score for 2:50 of game time, but the Irish only came within six points, missing a pair of triples and a layup during the stretch. The Cardinals consistently took away Notre Dame’s dangerous ball movement, leaving them with limited options offensively. 

“To beat anybody, we need all [seven guys that played Tuesday] in a rhythm,” head coach Mike Brey said. “We were left with Prentiss Hubb kind of being the only guy that could do it, and when we get to that point … we’re kind of grasping at straws.” 

With 6:26 to play in the game, Notre Dame junior transfer guard Cormac Ryan, who chipped in nine points and eight rebounds off the bench, drilled his lone three-pointer of the night, closing the gap to 56-51. But that was as good as things got for Notre Dame, who scored just six points over the remainder of the game. 

“I thought we got good looks,” Brey said, crediting Louisville’s defense with making their shot selection tougher. “But the ones we needed — when we were hanging around, down five or six points, were clean looks. And we didn’t get them.”

Louisville’s 7-0 run ran their lead back up to twelve points, and the Irish failed to come back within ten points. Down 65-55, a scoring drought of more than two and a half minutes sealed the deal, with the Irish’s only remaining bucket coming with 40 seconds to play, a layup that carried no significant meaning other than ensuring Notre Dame would not match their worst defeat of the season.

“Everything was hard [offensively],” Brey said. “Even when we cut it to five, it felt like ten.” 

Louisville received balanced scoring, with five of their six players that played more than ten minutes scoring in the double digits. They made a living on the glass, out rebounding the Irish 45-30 and collecting fourteen offensive rebounds.

“It was tough to box out sometimes, because I had multiple guys on me,” Durham said, referring to Louisville’s forward-centric lineup, which at times only had one guard on the floor. “But at the end of the day, we just have to compete.”

Brey echoed the sentiment.

“Their athletic ability on the backboard was freakish, and we have a hard time controlling that some nights,” he said.

Photo Courtesy of Syracuse Athletics
Irish junior forward Juwan Durham blocks the shot of a Syracuse opponent during Notre Dame’s 57-69 defeat to the Orange on Feb. 20 at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY.

Louisville forward Jae’Lyn Withers had 13 rebounds, while center Malik Willis contributed 10 boards to lead the Cardinals on the glass. From a scoring perspective, senior point guard Carlik Jones was the biggest nuisance, with 18 points on 7-14 shooting.

“He’s a good point guard, and I felt like we did a good job trying to contain him,” Durham said. “But he just hit some ridiculous shots. It was his night.” 

Notre Dame was down to roughly a 13% chance to make the NCAA Tournament before this game, and — shy of an unbeaten finish with a win over No. 11 Florida State — it’s hard to see the Irish receiving legitimate at-large consideration again. For a team that has made their mark with scorching hot February performances, Tuesday was an unpleasant throwback to the dreary, drizzly days of Irish basketball in December and January. They’ll look to rebound with a trip to Boston College on Saturday, with a 2 p.m. tipoff from Conte Forum.

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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