At a dramatic athletic disadvantage prior to the opening tip, Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey's now .500 basketball team finished a competitive first half poorly, began a one-sided second stanza much worse, then watched in vain as Roy Williams' visiting Tar Heels put on an exhibition in transition basketball en route to a 73-62 victory Saturday afternoon at the Purcell Pavilion.
"They're really good and playing well," said Brey of North Carolina, winners of five straight. "Their size around the basket really bothered us. They defended the heck out of us. Again, we turned it over 17 times. You can't absorb that. 15 offensive rebounds."
The latter statistic helped the visitors win the battle for buckets in close, holding a 44-26 advantage in the paint. At least seven of those field hoals were courtesy dispiriting dunks with 23 points off turnovers overall.
The Tar Heels turned a 23-18 Notre Dame lead with 2:21 to play in the first half into a 44-30 North Carolina advantage with 13:30 remaining in the contest.
That eight minute and and fifty-one second span saw Williams' high flyers post five dunks, five layups, and a pair of three-point shots. Notre Dame countered with eight turnovers while missing six jump shots, at one point converting just one field goal in 8:06 of game action.
"Love how we got off to a good start," said Brey of an early 19-10 lead. "They kind of played really well to end the half, and we never could get any rhythm or confidence back in the second half…it's disappointing because we got out of the gate well."
The Irish, now 3-8 in league play and 12-12 overall, are in danger of missing the assumed consolation prize for college basketball's annual also-rans, the National Invitation Tournament. With seven regular season games remaining including four true road games (Notre Dame is 0-5 in ACC road games this season), plus the ACC Tournament thereafter, a necessary final record above .500 required for NIT consideration is in doubt.
Turnovers, too many missesWinners of 16 of their final 30 Big East road games entering the season, Notre Dame's 0-5 mark in ACC road matchups has played a large role in the squad's cellar-dweller status. So too, however, has the loss of home court dominance.
Saturday, Notre Dame came up short in its fifth home game (11-5) with three to play. The Irish hadn't lost more than three home games in a season since the 2005-06 when they likewise dropped a quintet en route to a 16-14 finish.
At least each during the frustrating '06 campaign were close. Three of the team's five home defeats this season were by at least 11 points, none from the trio felt winnable.
Asked on his post-game radio show where the Irish need to improve most, Brey offered a starting point, but added a dose of reality.
"Probably defensively, still," he began. "Really everywhere. We need to improve everywhere. You turn the ball over like that, that kills you. 73 points isn't bad, for them, but the second shots in the paint took its toll on us."
If turnovers and the failure to get back defensively weren't enough, Notre Dame shot itself out of the contest, missing 15 of 21 three-point shots including 15 of it's final 17 after a 4 for 4 start.
"It's just a matter of digging down on defense and offense, and taking care of the ball," said 6'5" junior Pat Connaughton who led both teams with 10 rebounds. "As a program, we've always been known for taking care of the ball, and in these losses we haven't done that.
"North Carolina is a very good team and we have to give them credit for the way they played."
They are, and Notre Dame isn't, largely because it doesn't have a particular strength on which it can rely. The nation's third most successful home team over the six seasons previous, the Irish then relied on crisp ball movement and deadeye three-point shooting to dominate in South Bend. But in five home losses this season, Notre Dame has hit a combined 36 of 120 shots from beyond the arc while committing 72 turnovers.
In those five defeats, opponents shot 48.3, 50.9, 41.9, 53.8, and 44.3 percent, respectively, though in the latter example, North Carolina hit for better than 53 percent in the decisive second half.
Getting a key stop or registering back-to-back stops to seize momentum is rare. Taking care of the basketball is a problem. Outside shooting is in short supply. The squad's overall athleticism pales in comparison to most foes they face.
They lack confidence and perhaps as important, belief things could get better.
"I've said it before: the more you make, the more you make," said Williams of his streaking Tar Heels' surge in confidence. "It's like golf, the more putts you make, the more you (continue to) make."
With no gimmes apparent, the course that remains appears hazardous for the reeling Irish.