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Men’s Basketball

Irish see season end in ACC Tourney after 42-4 second half run by Tar Heels

| Friday, March 12, 2021

Less than 24 hours after a heart-stopping buzzer beater to keep their postseason hopes alive, Notre Dame was sent home by North Carolina, losing 101-59 in the second round of the ACC tournament. This early departure in the conference tournament, an 11th-place ACC regular season finish and a final record of 11-15 (7-11 ACC) marks the fourth-straight year Notre Dame will miss the NCAA tournament.

“I don’t know if we had much left after last night either, quite frankly, because we kind of pulled that one out of our backside just to stay alive,” head coach Mike Brey said following Wednesday’s loss. “And I was very concerned about if we had enough juice to hang around and we really didn’t.”

From the opening tip, the Tar Heels established themselves in the paint, living up to their reputation as the No. 1 team nationally in offensive rebounds. While the Irish struggled to find their offensive groove, the Tar Heels continued to find forward Day’Ron Sharpe, who scored six-straight points to give North Carolina a 9-5 lead. Despite this only being Sharpe’s fourth game in the starting lineup, Brey and his coaching staff were very familiar with the 6-foot-11 freshman after he dropped a career-high 25 points in a one-point win over the Irish in early January.

While the group of Notre Dame juniors led by guard Prentiss Hubb and forward Nate Laszewski tried to manage the momentum of the game, they couldn’t seem to mount a response to UNC’s dominant rebounding performance. At the midway point of the first half the Tarheels had 14 offensive rebounds which resulted in 13 second-chance points. The size of Sharpe, sophomore forward Armando Bacot and first-year forward Walker Kessler seemed to catch up with the guard-heavy Irish.

“That’s been a weakness of ours all year,” Brey said. “We’re not a great defensive rebounding team … and it’s their greatest strength.”

He added that even when his team executed a fundamental block out, the Tar Heels have the talent to still end up with the ball.

In an effort to close the gap, the Irish got their big guys involved, looking to Laszewski and graduate student forward Juwan Durham. Back-to-back free throws by Laszewski cut the lead to 11, the narrowest margin for the rest of the game. For the remainder of the first half, both teams exchanged points in the paint and along the free throw line. Despite a last-minute run by the Tar Heels, the Irish returned to the locker room down 14 at half.

Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey during Notre Dame’s 80-77 win over Wake Forest on Tuesday night in the first round of the ACC tournament. The Irish have won at least one game in every ACC tournament aside from their very first since joining the conference in 2013-14.

To open the second half, UNC once again extended the lead with a quick 3-pointer by first-year guard Caleb Love. While each team sunk four free throws over the course of the next two minutes, the Irish added in back-to-back 3-pointers by Hubb and junior guard Trey Wertz. Laszewski and graduate student forward Nik Djogo each returned to the free throw line to bring the Irish within 12 with just over 15 minutes remaining.

Then things caught up to them. Between the size advantage and wear and tear of the win the night before, the Irish quickly lost all momentum, allowing North Carolina to go on a 42-4 run. The margin got as bad as 101-51 in favor of the Tar Heels before an 8-0 garbage time run for the Irish to close out the game.

101-59. It’s the sixth-worst margin of defeat in Notre Dame men’s basketball history, the worst since a 47-point loss to Kentucky in 1961.

“After watching them against Duke on Saturday night I was scared to death if we got to them, and my worst fears came true,” Brey said. “They just overwhelmed us. It was an 11-point game in the second half and then just the roof fell in and we couldn’t do anything inside. And they certainly have big bodies that just keep pounding on you. Their defense was great too … demoralized inside and then on the defensive end.”

With nearly their entire bench seeing the floor, the Tar Heels finished with five players in double digits, led by double-doubles for Sharpe, Bacot and Kessler. Meanwhile, that 8-0 Notre Dame run came in the last two minute off back-to-back 3-pointers by freshman guard Tony Sanders Jr. and a layup by sophomore guard Elijah Morgan. Junior guard Cormac Ryan’s two free throws were the only points by a significant rotation player in the final stretch of play for the Irish.

While disappointed by the season’s final showing, Brey reiterated that a lot of good has come out of the season for the program.

“I think a lot of those guys got better. Wasn’t good enough to earn an NCAA bid, I get that,” he said. “We threw the whole group to the wolves and I think the challenge is how do we react and how do we grow from it. And a year from Sunday we need to show up in that bracket.”

Much of the future is still unknown for the Irish, but Hubb said he has complete confidence in Brey as a coach and leader.

“He’s not going to lie to us, he’s not going to sugarcoat things,” Hubb said of Brey. “He wants us to know that he sees the potential in all of us and we can get there, so we just got to keep believing in him.”

Brey, too, echoed confidence in the state of the program, comparing it to his seventh season at Notre Dame, when they ended up returning to the NCAA tournament after a three-year hiatus. Looking forward, he also discussed the emergence of new leaders in the program, as well as the edition of Paul Atkinson Jr. as a graduate student transfer from Yale next season.

“We did it in year seven, we had to go back and we did. We had some momentum. I think I’m right on that mat again — been there, done that,” Brey said. “There’s a nucleus of guys coming back. Hard to evaluate them tonight, but some of them have gotten better this year. We get a big guy who is a proven low post player in Atkinson.”

With a key recruiting class preparing to enter their senior season, there’s no question: The Irish have their sights set on one thing — an NCAA bid.

“I told them a year from now, Selection Sunday should be to see our names flash up,” Brey said. “And that’s the crossroads we’re at.”

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