When Notre Dame allows a poor shooting team like Pittsburgh to convert 15-of-22 shots from the field in the second half – even at the Petersen Events Center – you suspect one of two things…or both:
1) Pittsburgh, riding a three-game losing streak, had reached desperation mode and 2) sometimes the tank runs dry.
Notre Dame’s 76-72 loss to Pittsburgh Saturday was much more a defensive failure than an offensive pitfall. The Irish converted 53.1 percent of their shots, and when the Panthers took an eight-point lead with three minutes remaining, fatigue no longer impacted the visiting team on the offensive end.
And yet after Jerian Grant gave the Irish an improbable lead on a pair of free throws with 31.2 seconds remaining, the Irish – with Pat Connaughton defending James Robinson – couldn’t stop the Panther junior from connecting on the game winner with 12 seconds left. Steve Vasturia’s jumper from the corner, reminiscent of his huge three-pointer three days earlier at Purcell Pavilion, wasn’t meant to be.
“If you were going to win it, if you were going to steal it, you had to steal it after Jerian’s free throw,” said a philosophical Mike Brey “You had to get it there. When Robinson hit the runner, it’s almost like you don’t deserve it.”
Either there were a lot of underserving teams over the last week or, more accurately, the law of averages in conference play kicked in. For while the Irish lost for the first time after winning five in a row to surge to the No. 2 spot in the ACC behind Virginia, several league frontrunners followed suit.
• Virginia, undefeated in conference play heading into a home tilt with a desperate Duke, lost an 11-point late-second half lead to fall to the Blue Devils, 69-63.
• North Carolina, winners of six straight since dropping a home tilt to Notre Dame on Jan. 5, lost at Louisville and at home against Virginia in successive games.
• Syracuse, off to a 4-0 start in conference play, has now lost three of four with road defeats at Clemson and North Carolina, and a home loss to Miami.
• Miami, the darling of the ACC a little more than two weeks ago with a decisive victory at Duke, has lost three of its last five, including tough road setbacks to Notre Dame (by 5) and Florida State (by 1), as well as a head-scratching 20-point home loss to Georgia Tech after the Hurricanes won at Syracuse.
Louisville’s lull came right before its consecutive victories at Pittsburgh, at Boston College and at home against North Carolina in overtime when the Cardinals lost at North Carolina by a point and at home against Duke by 11.
Mighty Virginia bounced back Monday night with a clutch 75-64 victory at North Carolina to put salve on Sunday’s Duke wound. And thus, after a mad scramble of competitive games, the ACC is about where it was a-week-to-10-days ago.
Virginia remains in first place with an 8-1 conference mark, followed by Notre Dame (8-2), Louisville (6-2), North Carolina (7-3), and Duke and Syracuse at 5-3 with the rest of the league chasing.
In fact, beyond those above-mentioned six teams -- now that we’re at or slightly beyond the midway point of the conference season -- a demarcation has been made between the ACC’s frontrunners for an NCAA tournament bid and the rest of the pack.
Clemson, the seventh-place team, is the only other ACC program above .500, and that’s at 5-4 with trips to Florida State and Miami coming up. Meanwhile, teams like North Carolina State (5-5), Miami (4-4), Pittsburgh (4-5) and Florida State (4-5) will be in desperation mode for the balance of the regular season while Wake Forest (2-7), Boston College (1-7), Virginia Tech (1-7) and Georgia Tech (1-8) have only the spoiler role in which to cling.
“They’re an NCAA tournament team,” said Brey of Pittsburgh following Saturday’s clash. “I know they had a couple tough ones, but I think they’re going to be in the NCAA tournament after all is said and done.”
Brey obviously was not clued-in to Pittsburgh’s upcoming schedule when he made that statement. The Panthers will have to play outstanding basketball for the better part of the next three weeks.
Pittsburgh’s next five games are against Syracuse, at Louisville, North Carolina, at Virginia and at Syracuse. Yikes! The Panthers needed to create a buffer for themselves earlier in the season against North Carolina State, Clemson and Virginia Tech – all losses.
So until another dramatic shift – and barring a collapse of one of the frontrunners -- the number of NCAA tournament teams coming from the ACC is set at six with Clemson peeking in and North Carolina State looking capable of making a run.
Virginia, Louisville and Duke will hold the fort, so pencil them in.
North Carolina, despite its immense talent, always seems to be teetering on a fall, and five of their last eight games are away from the Smith Center. The Tar Heels should hold it together and get in.
Syracuse is young but very talented and should make The Dance, but check out its last 10 games. Two are with Duke and two are against Pittsburgh with one each versus Louisville, at Notre Dame, Virginia and at North Carolina State. Keep an eye on the Orange the rest of the way, but this isn’t Jim Boeheim’s first goat-roping. They’ll make it.
Notre Dame has positioned itself well. A home victory against Boston College Wednesday would give the Irish nine victories in 11 games. That’s followed by a trip to Duke and Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the Blue Devils' faithful will be screaming for revenge.
After that, if the Irish play up to their potential at Clemson, at home against Wake Forest, and at Boston College, an NCAA tournament spot will be secured before the final two weeks of the season. At that point, it’s a matter of jockeying for seeding position, which also will be influenced by the ACC tournament in Greensboro.
If Notre Dame simply splits its remaining eight games, it would finish 12-6. If the Irish can win five or six of their remaining eight, now you’re looking at a very favorable NCAA tournament seed.
“Not there yet…Not there yet,” said Brey when asked following the Pittsburgh loss about his team achieving “special” status.
“In search of being special is what I said as soon as we got in the locker room.”
The journey continues Wednesday night at Purcell Pavilion.