Moments after the defeat that was difficult to swallow for Irish faithful, Notre Dame's locker room was deflated and left searching for answers, caught in the middle of a four-game losing streak.
"Frustration," was the only word Luke Harangody could muster up after some thought. "I mean, four in a row, all of them tight games that we should win, especially these last two at home. We need to dig deep right now, dig deep and stay together and find it, because obviously it's not out there. We got beat by men tonight, and we didn't play like men."
Senior point guard Kyle McAlarney went as far as to say that he was worried.
"Yeah, I mean, worried, angry, disappointed," he said of his emotions after the loss. "When you look at the rankings and see the standings, you definitely get worried, because we don't have anything right now, we don't have the next NCAA bid, but we're fighting for that right now. When you see the standings and you see our record, worry, you know, you definitely feel a sense of worry."
Notre Dame (12-7, 3-5) came out in a different starting lineup, replacing Zach Hillesland with Luke Zeller and Ryan Ayers with Jonathan Peoples. Both of the new starters gave coach Mike Brey solid minutes and production, but the two seniors relegated to come off the bench went scoreless in the contest. Marquette (18-2, 7-0) on the other hand stuck to its horses and received standout performances from its prolific scoring quartet of Lazar Hayward, Dominic James, Wesley Matthews and Jerel McNeal who picked up 13, 15, 16 and 27 points respectively. In fact, Maurice Acker was the only other player to attempt a shot, and no other Marquette player managed to even score a point besides the foursome.
The contest started out with a quick pace, as both squads began to trade baskets. Unlike Marquette, however, the Irish scoring came primarily from only two players — Harangody and Zeller. In the first half, the duo combined for 10-of-15 shooting for 25 points. The rest of Notre Dame's team went a combined 1-for-17 from the field, a McAlarney three-pointer. Zeller finished with eight points to add on to his eight boards, and Tory Jackson added 10 points and seven assists. Once again, Harangody was the focal point, ending up with game-highs in points and rebounds with 29 and 17 respectively.
After McAlarney delivered his three-pointer early on to tie the game at five apiece, he then called for a pick on the next possession, which Harangody delivered, followed by a quick cut to the basket for an easy finish to put the Irish up two. James pushed the tempo on the ensuing possession finishing with a fastbreak layup to tie the contest at seven. After the reigning Big East Player of the Year hit a 10-foot jumper from the right baseline, Hayward knotted up the game once again with a short floater. Then Harangody continued his assault, this time from beyond the arc, however, with a three-pointer as the shot clock expired. The Golden Eagles would continue to trade a basket for another, as McNeal came off a screen with his own long-range three to tie the score up at 12. Harangody then answered with another long-range shot, this one good for two.
After McNeal drove to the lane to knot the contest up once again, he completed the three-point play to put Marquette up 15-14. From that point on, the Golden Eagles would hold the lead for the majority of the contest, up until 16 minutes to play in the second half. Marquette continued to benefit from McNeal's ability to drive into the paint and finish, eventually going into halftime up 33-30.
Later in the contest, after a pair of McAlarney free throws put the score at 63-61 in favor of the Golden Eagles, the Irish were looking to make a run and close the gap. McNeal, once again, was there to ensure that this would not be the case. In a play that seemed to be going nowhere, Tyrone Nash nearly stole the inbounds pass, but the ball eventually made its way into McNeal's hands. With Harangody charging hard in an attempt to alter his shot, McNeal simply stayed poised and drained the back-breaking three-pointer, putting Marquette up five. The next trip down the court, McAlarney hoisted a long-range three that fell wide right and into the hands of Marquette. Eventually, Matthews was fouled, and converted his two free throws to put the score at 68-61, and the game out of reach for the Irish.
"I remember what we were running, and it didn't flow very efficiently prior to getting the ball to Rel," Marquette head coach Buzz Williams said of McNeal's game-changing shot. "He's very impulsive and very instinctive and what he does on both ends of the floor, obviously that was a big possession."
Now that Notre Dame is wounded and reeling in the Big East, the faces on the players depicted a need for a resolution to the squad's problems after the defeat. According to Zeller, the resolution starts with introspection of each individual member of the unit. However, the senior center is not one to make excuses.
"I mean, like you said, there's no excuses for it," he said of the four-game losing streak. "We have a challenge every single night, whether it be a team that is ranked, or a team that's not ranked. You've got teams at the bottom half of the league that are capable of doing big things and upset the teams on a nightly basis, so every single game in this league is a tough game, and it's going to be a tough stretch the rest of the way, but we just have to dig in and find a way to win."
No one knows this better than Brey, who knows how to treat this squad after its recent brutal stretch.
"It's not cub scouts, man," Brey said. "We signed up for the Big East and this is tough, so I'm not holding any hands. Either grow up and deliver, or don't play. That's where we're at. We're going to go play Pittsburgh, who arguably is the toughest team in the league, so it's all about your leadership stepping forward and we've got good leadership and solid guys, they'll rally, but I'm not giving massages and telling guys they're beautiful. Either you deliver or you don't play."
To start the weekend, Notre Dame was hoping to keep its consecutive home winning streak alive. After Saturday's loss, the Irish were hopeful of picking up a win Monday night to split the home series. Now, after a its most recent loss to Marquette, Notre Dame is hoping for something else — a win.