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Notre Dame Basketball

Run undone: Cold-shooting Irish eliminated by Texas Tech

March 20, 2022

It was right there for Notre Dame, a journey through college basketball’s wilderness the past four-plus years poised to dissolve into the sport’s sweetest of destinations.

The Fighting Irish led, 52-49, on the strength of a Blake Wesley free throw, and the scoreboard showed just 129 ticks left in the game.

But Wesley missed that second free throw, No. 11 seed Notre Dame missed its next four field-goal attempts, had multiple critical turnovers and watched No. 3 seed Texas Tech end the game – and Notre Dame’s season – with a 10-1 closing run in an 59-53 defeat in the NCAA Tournament West Regional Round of 32.

“We had our chances,” said Irish coach Mike Brey, after his team won NCAA Tournament games this week in Dayton, Ohio, and Friday in San Diego to set up this clash. “I told them (Saturday) night, ‘Would you be OK going to San Francisco if it was 55-54? Because I think that’s what it’s going to be. We had our chances, but they made a few more plays.

“We emptied the tank, physically. Not only today but starting on Wednesday night. … We kind of emptied it emotionally. Everybody was fully invested. I feel for them. I’m disappointed because I don’t get to coach this nucleus anymore.”

A core group – Dane Goodwin, Prentiss Hubb and Nate Laszewski – who had absorbed 46 losses across their first three college seasons had positioned themselves, along with the freshman Wesley and Yale-transfer Paul Atkinson Jr., as well as Cormac Ryan and Trey Wertz, Sunday evening to extend their season longer than any Notre Dame team in six years.

“Obviously, it’s hard,” said Goodwin, who led the Irish with 14 points and matched team-best honors with eight rebounds. “You never want to go out, but I’m glad that we went out fighting.

“We really gave ourselves a chance. We fought to it till the end.”

Yet Texas Tech (27-9), among the nation’s defensive leaders and accustomed to games only a mother could love, never panicked even as Notre Dame wrested brief momentum.

Atkinson, Hubb and Laszewski combined for just 13 points; Wesley added 11 and eight boards, but he shot just three-for-14 from the floor and missed each of his four 3-point attempts. 

The Red Raiders, under first-year coach Mark Adams after Chris Beard exited after last season to take over at Texas, outrebounded the Irish by six, 42-46, and whipped them in the paint, 24-10.

Too, TTU stifled Notre Dame’s perimeter shooting down the stretch – the Irish made their ninth triple with more than five minutes to play, and then never made another one – and held the ever-sharing ND squad to just eight assists.

“We needed 11 (3-pointers),” Brey said. “We needed double-digits. I’m telling you, I thought when we got going in second half … that’s why we went four guards in the second half. We had to make 11 or 12 to win. Double digits is a key for us. We got into a rhythm doing it. And we had great looks.

“But you know what they do? They exhaust you and your legs feel a little different.”

Notre Dame mustered just 17-for-52 shooting from the field, and after it had made each of its six first-half free-throw attempts went just four-for-nine in the second half.

Though the game featured seven ties and 12 lead changes, the Red Raiders led for more than 26 minutes. They got a game-high 15 points from Kevin Obanor, who had nearly transferred out of the program, and 28 combined points from Kevin McCullar and Bryson Williams.

“Those last two or three minutes, I was thinking I don’t want this season to be over, and I know Coach Brey was feeling the same way,” Adams said. “I feel so bad for Notre Dame, they played so hard.”

As close as Notre Dame came to extending its season, it exited into the offseason with myriad questions. Goodwin, Hubb and Laszewski each can return for another season, despite having played the past four years, due to the NCAA’s COVID-19 waiver. None has officially said what he will do, though Hubb recently discussed that this was his “last ride” and he had to leave everything on the court.

Irish officials had researched whether Atkinson, the Ivy League transfer who sat out last season when the conference did not compete due to the pandemic, could obtain an additional season, but that has appeared to be an extreme longshot.

Ryan did declare earlier this month he intended to return to Notre Dame.

However, Wesley has been targeted as a potential one-and-done player who has been widely forecasted as a first-round NBA Draft pick this summer. Less clear, nonetheless, is Wesley’s status as a potential lottery pick – among the top 14 selections – which has fluctuated.

“We have a bunch of guys here that have to make some decisions,” Brey said. “The big thing is no one has to make that decision fast. I’ll meet with all of them individually Tuesday and Wednesday. We’ll work through it. We’ve got level-headed guys. If everybody wants to test the waters, put your name in, go ahead. Can I test the waters? I’m just (kidding).

“Go ahead, let everybody test the waters. I’m very excited about what’s coming and then I’ve asked our assistants everyday now that it’s March, what’s going on in the (NCAA Transfer) Portal because we may pick off a few there. It’s another process now that we’re going to be in for the next six weeks, two months and maybe up to summer school.

“Each one of those guys I need to remember could be on their own schedule, and I’ll respect that because they gave us everything they had this year.”

With the season concluded, the Irish closed as Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season runners-up, won multiple games in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years and won 24 or more games for just the fourth time in the past decade.

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