Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Basketball

Resilient Irish Thwart UNC

February 17, 2020

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Steps away from the post-game press conference, Nate Laszewski was labeled with a pair of nicknames from jubilant Notre Dame fans.

“Nate the Great! The Polish Canon!,” they exclaimed.

Laszewski probably can request any nickname he wants when he strolls across the majestic Notre Dame campus on Tuesday morning. His no-doubt dagger in a frenetic second-half rally proved the difference in a miraculous, 15-point comeback for an 77-76 Notre Dame win before 8,150 inside Purcell Pavilion.

“Ice in his veins,” Prentiss Hubb said of his sophomore classmate Laszewski.

The Fighting Irish (16-10, 7-8) trailed 64-49 before they closed the game on a 28-12 scoring binge; Laszewski’s shot capped a 13-3 sprint to victory across the game’s final five minutes.

Notre Dame had nearly forced overtime when it worked the ball inside to do-everything forward John Mooney, but his shot was off and Rex Pflueger rebounded and kicked it to Laszewski on the left wing.

“Mooney got a great look at a post-up, Rex got on the glass like he does the whole year, just making those hustle plays, got it out to me and I just shot it with confidence,” said Laszewski, who earlier this season hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to help lift ND past Toledo.

“The way I shot it, I thought it was good.”

Added Hubb, “Better [than Toledo]; we won in regulation.”

This looked like it would become another chapter in a season of just-miss heartbreakers for the Irish, who were blown out Saturday at Duke but have six other ACC losses by just a combined 13 points.

Notre Dame led 33-24 late in the first half when North Carolina got untracked for a run that spanned the intermission. The Tar Heels (10-16, 3-12) finished the first half on an 9-3 run, trailing only 36-33 at the break, and they blistered the Notre Dame defense for 15 minutes of the second half, shooting 52 percent from the field after the break (15-for-29) and making all eight of their free throws.

The Irish trailed by 15 with less than nine minutes to play and by 14 with 7:54 left on the clock.

That’s when Hubb, T.J. Gibbs and Mooney took over the offense while Pflueger finished with six boards, five assists, three steals, blocked a shot and did not commit a turnover in 27 minutes on the floor.

“Was Pflueger unbelievable down the stretch getting the steals,” said ND coach Mike Brey. “It’s amazing the plays, winning plays Rex Pflueger makes.

“We needed it bad. We were dead in the water and I’m really proud we were able to escape.”

UNC took a 40-38 lead at the 16:35 mark of the second half and never again trailed until Laszewski’s shot swished true with 2.4 ticks left on the clock. Carolina’s desperation half-court heave was an airball at the buzzer. The Tar Heels committed eight of their 12 turnovers in the second half, including melting down multiple times in the game’s closing moments.

Heels star Cole Anthony led all scorers with 23 points, 17 after the break, but he air-balled a 3-pointer on the Heels’ final full possession to set up the eventual Laszewski heroics.

“It doesn’t feel good for us, doesn’t feel good at all,” said UNC coach Roy Williams. “We have a four-point lead and have a turnover on the illegal screen, which is not the way we want to play.

“And last possession, I don’t like to not attack the rim, but again, the whole thing is they were tougher, they made plays down the stretch and I think you just really have to congratulate those guys.”

The Irish got 20 points and eight assists from Hubb; Mooney got back on his double-double track with 13 points and 10 boards. Gibbs added 14, including going 4-for-8 from distance.

“This group, I think they’ve got some toughness about them,” Brey said. “What T.J. did to kind of jump-start us, what Prentiss did, different guys wanting it. And our crowd was fabulous. Once we got going a little bit, they helped us.

“And I’ve been on the Carolina side of it, too. When it happens to you sometimes, it’s hard to escape it.”

After a grueling stretch of four games, three of them on the road, in nine days, the Irish are off until hosting Miami Sunday at 6 p.m.

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