A Jim Boeheim-coached team is down but never out.
Struggling to play at the typical Syracuse level in recent weeks – losing six of 10 games – the Orange applied their patented 2-3 zone against Notre Dame’s marksmen, and then turned ailing Trevor Cooney loose.
Cooney hit a couple of long-range jumpers with the shot clock nearly expired in the final four minutes and the Orange defense prevented a last-minute surge from changing the final outcome in Tuesday’s 65-60 Syracuse victory at Purcell Pavilion.
“Their defense really stalled us,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, bemoaning Notre Dame’s 3-of-22 effort from three-point range.
“I thought we had some great looks from the three-point line and you’ve got to make a few more of those to feel comfortable against their defense. I loved how we kept fighting and scratching, but Cooney’s two shots broke our back.”
Cooney – bothered by a back ailment over the last few weeks that limited him to 19-of-82 shooting (23.1 percent) from three-point range – fired in what was thought to be a three-pointer but later changed to a two with 4:14 left to give Syracuse a seven-point lead. Cooney did it again with 2:07 remaining, this time counting as a three, and then added a layup 24 seconds later.
A three-pointer by Pat Connaughton and three free throws by Jerian Grant pulled the Irish to within two. But a slam dunk by B.J. Johnson with a free-throw added on was enough to prevent the Irish (24-5, 12-4) from notching their 25th victory of the season.
“Our defense overall was pretty good tonight, and we didn’t let them get comfortable,” said Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, who notched his 966th career victory.
“They missed threes and Notre Dame (usually) makes threes. That’s how they win. If they shoot 3-for-22, you should beat ‘em. We should have played a little better.”
Grant, who scored 13 points but converted just 2-of-9 field-goal attempts, missed all six of his three-point attempts, as did Steve Vasturia. Brey went big down the stretch with Bonzie Colson and Zach Auguste in the game together as Colson’s 16 points paced the Irish for the second game in a row. Auguste finished with 10 points and six rebounds.
Notre Dame (24-5, 12-4) did yeoman’s work on the defensive end as well, limiting Syracuse (18-10, 9-6) to just 4-of-16 shooting from three-point range and 40.4 percent from the field.
But Johnson’s 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting – after scoring just 26 in 10 ACC games – compensated for the fact that every Syracuse starter shot under 50 percent for the game.
A third foul against Syracuse’s man in the middle – Rakeem Christmas – looked as if it would hamstring the Orange when it occurred with 6:53 to go in the first half. Instead, Syracuse went from a 20-15 lead to a 27-17 advantage without Christmas in the lineup before the Irish narrowed the gap to five again (27-22) at the break.
Christmas picked up his fourth foul less than seven minutes in the second half, but Boeheim kept him in the game. Christmas finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds before eventually fouling out late. But by then, it was too little, too late for the Irish.
A more aggressive approach against Syracuse’s zone defense in the second half offered promise. But after losing a 7-5 lead early in the game, Notre Dame never led again, due largely to an inability to hit shots consistently.
“I’m going to give all the credit to them,” said Connaughton, who finished with 13 points and a career-high 15 rebounds. “They played great defense and they made the winning play when they needed it.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well. We had some looks that we didn’t knock down, and that’s evident with the field-goal percentage and three-point percentage. That hasn’t been us all year and we need a little more work against zone.”
Ultimately, it was Cooney – who finished with 11 points and just 1-of-6 from three-point range -- who made the big plays down the stretch for the Orange. He’s no stranger to success against the Irish, tossing in 33 points in a six-point win in the Carrier Dome last season.
Boeheim, who has taken offense in recent days to the suggestion that Cooney should play less because of his back injury, defended his decision to play the banged-up sharpshooter.
“As a coach, if the player says he can play and the doctor says he can play, he’s going to play,” Boeheim said. “He shot 0-for-5 the other night and people will say, ‘He didn’t look good.’ Well, he didn’t look good tonight, either, but luckily the coach kept him in there because he won the game.”
The silver lining for the Irish was that with North Carolina’s loss at home to North Carolina State, Notre Dame clinched a double-bye in the ACC tournament.
“Double bye, baby!” said Brey, looking for a reason to express positive emotions after providing the gory details of the Syracuse game. “We don’t play until Thursday! We’ll take it”
“We’re not chasing Virginia down after tonight, but obviously we did enough work to not play until Thursday, and that’s great.”
The Irish don’t play again for eight days when they visit Louisville, and then close the 2014-15 regular season with a home tilt against Clemson on March 7.
There will be no tie for the ACC crown, but the odds of clinching a double-bye with two games left in the regular season would have seemed like a fairy tale just two months ago.
“That’s big time to know you’re going to finish in the top four of the ACC,” said Grant, whose 13 points against Syracuse gives him 1,601 in his career. “That’s huge.
“We still have two regular-season games left that we want to play well going into the post-season. That’s when it really counts.”