In each of the previous six nip-and-tuck battles, the Irish pulled away with a commitment to defense and renewed focus. Saturday night's intermission offered no such elixir as the Irish dropped a shocking 87-85 decision to the Loyola Marymount Lions at the Purcell Pavilion.
The Notre Dame team (9-2) showed up on the stat sheet, piling up 20 assists vs. just six turnovers. They hit 10 of 22 3-point attempts; made 24 trips to the foul line (connecting on a respectable 17 free throws); and had three first-year starters with the program combine for 50 points on 18-31 shooting.
What they neglected was the other end of the floor.
The Lions (4-7) shot a shade over 51% in both halves and outrebounded the Irish 40-33 on their home court. Led by junior guard Vernon Teel and classmate Drew Viney, the Lions roared back from an early 10-point deficit, cutting the Irish lead to one just before the break. They played th Irish to a relative stalemate for the majority of the second stanza, knocking down a variety of loosely contested shots vs. an indifferent or incapable defensive unit.
"We couldn't get a stop when we really needed it," Irish coach Mike Brey explained postgame. "To give up 87 points…they played loose and played really well and made big shots."
Lions coach Max Good, whose LMU squad has been snakebitten by injuries for most of the season, was proud of his group and aware of the magnitude of the win.
"For whatever reason we've suffered these hideous injuries," Good stated. "Last year we did and this year with two of our kids going down (guard Larry Davis returned tonight). And it's tough…obviously it's a big win."
Irish senior guard Ben Hansbrough twice appeared to hit late daggers from beyond the arc, only to see the resilient Lions answer with shots in close.
The Irish led 85-82 and under a minute remaining, but Teel stripped Hansbrough in a scramble near midcourt and sprinted for a layup to draw the Lions to within one, 85-84 with 0:55 remaining.
Following a Notre Dame timeout, the Irish curiously bled the clock for 33 seconds (a strategy that would allow the Lions the last shot regardless the result) before a forced Tory Jackson jump shot led to another scramble and Teel breakout.
But the heady Hansbrough bothered Teel defensively in a one-on-one situation to force a transition traveling violation near the Lions hoop, giving the ball back to the Irish with 0:19 remaining.
With possession and in a certain foul situation, Irish forward Tim Abromaitis was called for a five-second violation while attempting to in-bound the ball, giving the ball back to the Lions for the game's penultimate and decisive possession. As LMU bled the clock, hobbled guard Larry Davis drove and found a wide open Jared DuBois for a 22-footer on the right wing to give the visitors a 87-85 lead with just under eight showing on the clock.
Jackson pushed the ball down the floor but his heavily contested shot near the hoop caromed off with two seconds remaining and Viney's scramble rebound secured a head-shaking home defeat.
Harangody led the Irish with 24 points but was noticeably agitated at the pushing and chipping of Lions defenders throughout the evening.
"I thought we did a pretty good job on him," Good observed. "We didn't double on him…he's going to score his buckets. He's an amazing player; a self-made, hard-nosed, grinding player that's done it the old fashioned way.
"There's nothing that's come easy to this kid, though I will say this: he's a lot more athletic than people think."
Abromaitis finished with 23 points while Hansbrough added 14 points and 9 assists in the loss. Junior forward Tyrone Nash scored a career-high 13 points and chipped in with 9 rebounds.
Teel led Loyola Marymount with 24 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 assists while Viney added 18 points and 9 boards and three other Lions reached double figures on the evening.
"I wanted to win the game obviously but we take no satisfaction in what happened to Mike Brey and his team out here tonight," Lions coach Max Good curiously offered.
"Let me back that up: we really wanted to win this game. But I may sound phony when I say this but I felt the same way when we beat USC (earlier) this year because I really like (Trojans head coach Kevin O'Neill).
"I know how tough it is in this business and I know how fragile coaching is. I've lost from Maine to California," stated the 28-year veteran head coach.
With two non-conference losses, Notre Dame will need to close December with a flourish against UCLA and Bucknell next week before negotiating the 18-game gauntlet in Big East play.
The loss to the Lions is hardly a death blow for the Irish NCAA Tournament chances, but it does put Notre Dame in a position where it will likely need to win an "extra" game in conference play. Though the season has yet to take shape, a .500 league finish would not impress the Selection Committee after this difficult home defeat.
"I don't think we can dwell on it long, we've got to flush it tomorrow," Brey said of the loss. "It's still very early in the season. We play a lot of games and there's a lot of power games in our league.
"The biggest thing for us is how do we bounce back against UCLA?"
How about one defensive stop at a time?