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Irish come up short on the road against North Carolina

A string of narrow losses left Notre Dame men’s basketball winless in ACC play entering a critical game at North Carolina on Saturday morning. Despite a worthy effort from the Irish on both ends of the floor, they continue to seek their first conference victory. The Tar Heels pulled away down the stretch en route to an 81-64 win.

Notre Dame (8-8, 0-5 ACC) entered the game shorthanded, with freshman forward Ven-Allen Lubin ruled out. Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey described Lubin’s injury as a “moderate ankle sprain.” Lubin has staked out a significant role in the Irish rotation in recent weeks as the team’s top interior player. Thus, his absence spelled trouble against a Tar Heel team that features preseason All-American forward Armando Bacot.

In Lubin’s absence, the Irish struggled to contain Bacot, who posted a 21-point, 13-rebound double-double. Against smaller defenders, Bacot got to the rim with ease. But when Notre Dame gave extended playing time to junior forward Matt Zona and freshman forward Dom Campbell in an effort to slow Bacot down, he used his strength and aggressiveness to draw fouls on a frequent basis. Campbell committed five fouls in eight minutes of action. At times, the Irish looked to double-team Bacot, but he made them pay, finding open shooters in the form of Tar Heel guards RJ Davis and Caleb Love on his way to four assists. Davis and Love finished with 13 and 18 points, respectively.

The injury to Lubin also limited the Irish’s versatility on offense. Brey spoke before the game about how Notre Dame becomes a more one-dimensional team without him on the floor.

“We really don’t have a post-up option, Venn was starting to become that. So much rides on us making three-point shots,” Brey said. “We’re probably going to have to make 13 or 14 [three-pointers] to win league games.”

Knowing this, North Carolina seemed to make a concerted effort to limit Notre Dame’s three-point attempts. They forced the Irish to score at the basket, with 70% of their shot attempts coming from inside the arc. The Irish converted at a solid 39% clip from distance but only made seven three-pointers, well short of the goal that Brey established as part of the team’s winning formula.

Irish guards got to the rim consistently, but Tar Heel defenders forced them into difficult shots. UNC blocked six shot attempts and altered several others. Notre Dame’s attacking mentality led to them drawing fouls, but the team converted on just 50% of their 14 free throws, uncharacteristic for one of the best free-throw shooting groups in the country.

Most of Notre Dame’s success around the rim came from graduate student forward Nate Laszewski and freshman guard JJ Starling. Laszewski used his size to finish in traffic and score a team-high 17 points. Starling showcased his quickness and impressive ability to change speeds, adding 10 points. He again showed why Brey often notes that the Irish offense can only benefit from the ball being in Starling’s hands more often.

North Carolina chased graduate student guard Dane Goodwin off the three-point line as much as possible, limiting him to just a single long-range attempt. Goodwin took what the defense gave him, sinking several mid-range shots to join Laszewski and Starling in double figures.

Despite the early 11:30 a.m. tip-off, North Carolina’s Dean E. Smith Center was filled to the brim, and the Tar Heels seemed to feed off the energy of their fans whenever the Irish started to chip away at their lead. Love made a three-pointer on the game’s opening possession, and that set the tone for a high-scoring, back-and-forth first half. With North Carolina holding a narrow two-point lead midway through the first half, Love scooped up a loose ball and threw down a fastbreak dunk. The building erupted, exemplifying why Brey called Chapel Hill a “great college basketball atmosphere.” That play sparked a surge that saw the Tar Heels take control of the game, leading 41-28 at half.

Much of the second period was a back-and-forth affair. The Irish scored enough to prevent North Carolina from pulling away, but they did not get the stops needed to work their way back into the game. With less than 10 minutes remaining, Love converted a three-point play that gave the Tar Heels a 16-point advantage and looked like a possible dagger. The Irish remained resilient, however. Graduate student guard Cormac Ryan connected on a pair of three-pointers in less than a minute to whittle the UNC advantage down to seven, the smallest it had been since late in the first half.

Just moments later, a Notre Dame miss led to a transition dunk by the Tar Heels’ Puff Johnson. He converted the basket while being fouled by Ryan. The play led to a scuffle that saw players on both sides receive technical fouls. After a review, Ryan’s foul was ruled a Flagrant 2 and he was ejected from the game. A crowd that had been quieted by the Irish run was suddenly louder than ever. North Carolina’s Davis and Bacot were dominant down the stretch as the Tar Heels coasted to victory.

After a pair of road losses, the Irish will return home to take on Georgia Tech on Tuesday night. Despite the defeats, they can take several positives from the trip. They controlled most of last week’s game against Boston College and played tough against a North Carolina team that was firing on all cylinders. Following Georgia Tech comes a string of familiar opponents. Notre Dame faces Syracuse, Florida State and Boston College, all of whom the Irish have already played. Over the next two weeks, Notre Dame will have every opportunity to build off of their disappointment and prove that they are not the same team they were earlier in the year.

Notre Dame will host Georgia Tech on Tuesday at 7 p.m. on ACC Network.

Contact Matthew Crow at mcrow@nd.edu.

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