O'Malley's Key Three

Fortune favored the foe with everything to lose Saturday in the Steel City.

February 12, 2009. No. 5 Louisville at 13-10 Notre Dame.

Reeling from an ongoing seven-game losing skid, the homebound, desperate, embarrassed Irish jumped on Rick Pitino's eventual Final Four bound Cardinals early and never looked back, shooting 55.6 percent from long range while assisting on 21 of 35 field goals en route to a shocking 90-57 victory.

It was the classic, "one-off" scenario. Notre Dame was desperate, not to be denied and would not play a better game that season. Aside from the blowout scenario, that's what happened in Pittsburgh Saturday afternoon to Mike Brey's Irish.

The host Panthers were not to be denied.

"This game right here was the season," said Panthers forward Jamel Artis (20 points, 8 boards) post-game after Pittsburgh had lost three straight, including a shocker to conference bottom-dweller Virginia Tech.

Notre Dame showed up -- they shot 53 percent and allowed just seven offensive boards -- but Pittsburgh, now 14-8, 4-5 in league play, brought its best. They were beyond what most believed to be their collective best, including a remarkable 24 assists on 31 made baskets.

Pittsburgh had more assists, 24, than missed shots, 22.

The dreaded "Human Nature" game felled the Irish. Three days after the Irish handled Duke, and four days removed from Pittsburgh's loss at winless Virginia Tech, the Panthers recovered to defeat Notre Dame, 76-72.

The scenario and subsequent result is common in college basketball outside the rarified air of the elite. Notre Dame remains "good" (not "special" per its head coach), and outings such as Saturday are to be expected. They've been minimized greatly this season by the South Bend Seven.

If a current 4-1 road record in ACC play can stretch to 5-2 (Duke and Clemson await in the next 10 days) and ultimately 6-3 at season's end (Boston College and Louisville loom), that's about what should be reasonably expected -- a remarkable new reality no reasonable fan or analyst considered at the season's outset.

Pittsburgh needed just eight three-point shot attempts to knock off the favored Irish (hitting four). They're weren't the beneficiaries of the home whistle (14 free throws compared to 18 for the Irish), nor did they catch the visitors on an off night.

The Panthers simply wouldn't be denied, and Notre Dame was unable to do anything to stop them defensively. It wasn't just that Pittsburgh moved the ball well -- they had more assists, 24, than missed shots, 22 -- it was the manner in which many of the Panthers 31 total buckets were scored that may serve as a portent for the eventual end of Notre Dame's season:

They weren't overly contested. Not that the Irish didn't attempt to contest, but interior defensive length and girth inside isn't readily available to Brey's bunch.

The old adage, "he got a good look" certainly applied throughout Saturday's 40-minute affair. Notre Dame's interior defense is, at best, its weakness. At worst, it will be the squad's Achilles Heel -- the fatal March flaw.

To the eye test, the Irish aren't bad defensively: they move their feet, they help, they battle, they hit the floor, they defend the arc, and they rebound their positions (with the exception of the pivot). And thanks to point guard Demetrius Jackson, they pressure the ball up top.

But objective ratings don't favor them -- ranked 150th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency per kenpom.com (of note, they're No. 2 offensively). And it was never more evident than Pittsburgh's game-winner in the paint, a lightly contested (because they don't have the size to do so) shot from three-feet converted by driving, spinning Panthers guard James Robinson against Pat Connaughton, the victim of a late screen-switch.

Robinson wasn't to be denied, and Notre Dame had never offered the impression that they'd be able to do so.

Late in his post-game press conference following a 77-73 loss to Notre Dame last week, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski lamented a collection of missed free throws by his star freshman center, Jahlil Okafor.

"(Okafor) had a heck of a game," Krzyzewski said. "If he hits those free throws then we’d be talking about him having the amazing game, not (Jerian) Grant."

Just as crunch-time misses from the charity stripe were the death knell for Duke Wednesday in South Bend, one missed three-point shot by Irish sophomore Steve Vasturia -- open from the same corner in which he nailed a dagger to subdue the Dukies three days prior -- provided the kill shot for Notre Dame in the Steel City.

If that drops, it's Notre Dame 75 Pittsburgh 73 with four seconds remaining, and the Irish are today likely tied with Virginia for the conference lead -- the Cavaliers suffered their first loss of the season last night at the hands of Duke. (Virginia led by 10, at home, with nine minutes remaining, the inverse situation that faced the Irish Wednesday.)

It's a fine line between No. 1 and at least No. 5 in the 2015 ACC. With four home games and two road tilts in which they'll be favored (slightly at Clemson, solidly at Boston College), the Irish are well-placed at the top end of that equation just past the season's mid-point.

But seconds, not minutes or halves or games, will separate the victors from the vanquished over the next two months.

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