Leg-weary Irish succumb defensively

PITTSBURGH – Winners of five straight versus a team that was on a three-game losing streak, No. 8 Notre Dame (20-3, 8-2) allowed Pittsburgh (14-8, 4-5) to convert 58.5 percent of its shots in the 76-72 Panther victory.

Pittsburgh – Go to the well one too many times and eventually, you’re going to fall in.

No. 8 Notre Dame (20-3, 8-2) finally took the plunge after repeated nip-and-tuck contests that turned into victories, falling to Pittsburgh, 76-72, despite overcoming an eight-point deficit over the final three minutes to take the lead, only to give up the game-winning drive to James Robinson with 12 seconds remaining.

Steve Vasturia’s shot from the corner as the final seconds ticked off was reminiscent of his big three-pointer three days earlier in a home victory over Duke. But Vasturia’s shot rimmed off and the Panthers (14-8, 4-5) held on for the victory.

“Our defense hurt us today,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, whose team’s five-game winning streak came to a close. “We could never get enough stops to win the game. We were scoring the whole time, but this group has been able to get stops, especially in the last seven or eight minutes. We got a couple, but we couldn’t get enough.”

Contrary to many of Notre Dame’s games this season, the Irish did not have to storm back in order to claim a victory until the very end. The Irish didn’t trail by more than five in the first half, and from the 18:06 mark of the second half until 4:38 remained, the differential on either side was never greater than three points.

But the Irish had difficulty stringing streaks of success together, mainly because Pittsburgh shot 58.5 percent from the field (31-of-53), including an astonishing 68.2 percent (15-of-22) in the second half.

The game was tied at 63 with 6:37 remaining before the Panthers went on an 8-0 run to take their largest lead of the afternoon.

“We always put ourselves in a position to win, but we should never get in that big of a hole,” said Demetrius Jackson of the late eight-point deficit. “We shouldn’t have to dig ourselves out. We should take care of our business earlier. We need to be more disciplined and have the will to stay in front of our guy.”

Notre Dame’s weariness showed on the defensive end as the Panthers – a poor three-point shooting team that wants to penetrate to score – had their way inside with Jamel Artis (20 points on 8-of-14 shooting) and Michael Young (16 points on 7-of-10 shooting).

Meanwhile, Robinson sliced his way through the Irish defense for 15 points, including the game-winning drive on Pat Connaughton to stop a 9-0 Notre Dame run that had erased the 71-63 deficit over the final three minutes.

Robinson’s basket gave Pittsburgh a 73-72 lead, but Jerian Grant rushed the ball up court and found Vasturia for the potential game-winner.

“So when you don’t get that one, even when Vasturia had a good look, it’s almost like the basketball gods said, ‘No, no, you can’t have this one,’” Brey said. ““We had two thefts this week already. So we’re 2-1 in thefts.”

Following an overtime victory over North Carolina State on the road Sunday after trailing by 18 points, and then an emotional four-point victory over Duke Wednesday night, the grind finally caught up to the Irish.

“It’s been a long week and we’ve invested emotionally,” Brey said. “I was concerned about this one, but again, we had a chance to win it and we were running on empty.

“Of all the games I’ve watched Pitt play this year, I think that’s the best they’ve played.”

Grant – who had five points through the first 37 minutes of the game – finally came alive with nine points over the final three minutes.

“The coaches and my teammates kept telling me to come get the ball and make plays,” Grant said. “Once they give you confidence like that, you can forget about what happened.”

Zach Auguste added 12 points for the Irish on 6-of-10 shooting. Vasturia matched Auguste’s scoring output on 5-of-8 shooting. Jackson finished with a team-high 15 points.

In addition to the fine work of Artis, Young and Robinson for the Panthers, Cameron Wright – who missed the first seven games of the season while recovering from a broken foot – converted 7-of-9 shots for 14 points.

“The major story of this game is how well Pitt played on both ends of the floor,” said Brey, who watched the Panthers assist on 24 of their 31 baskets. “It was one of those games where I think we deserved to lose by 15. It says a lot about our group that we somehow took the lead and still had that shot in the corner to steal another one.”

Following the victory over Duke, Brey said he wouldn’t call his team “special” unless they followed through with the start of a good week with a road victory at Pittsburgh.

“Not there yet…Not there yet,” Brey said. “In search of being special is what I said as soon as we got in the locker room.”

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