Following a loss at Georgia Tech on Wednesday, the Fighting Irish were looking to bounce back and notch their fourth conference victory of the season when they hosted the North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday night at Purcell Pavilion. Despite not having started a game in his college career, Mike Brey was not afraid to change things up when he started sophomore forward John Mooney against the Tar Heels.
Mooney began the game alongside T.J. Gibbs, Rex Pflueger, D.J. Harvey, and Martinas Geben. Notre Dame began the game off well and did not let the game get out of hand early on. Playing good defense and crashing the defensive glass was key in them keeping the game close.
All of Mike Brey’s starters provided some sort of offense in the opening half. However, the most notable spark might have been Notre Dame’s second unit. Whether it was Austin Torres hustling for a loose ball, Elijah Burns hitting a shot in the paint, or Nikola Djogo stroking it from behind the arc, their play was key in the Irish having success.
One key sequence which occurred that benefited the Irish mightily was with a little under five minutes remaining in the first half, the Irish hit threes on three straight possessions to get the crowd and their team energized.
Although Luke Maye and Joel Berry both played well when they were in, having thirteen and nine points, Notre Dame was gritty and battled the entire twenty minutes. Similar to what kept them in the game against Syracuse, the Irish collected 10 offensive rebounds and gave themselves more opportunities to score the basketball. After the first 20 minutes of play, North Carolina was leading Notre Dame 40-37.
Martinas Geben set the tone for the rest of his team by beginning the second half extremely engaged on both ends of the floor. He was aggressive on the offensive glass and able to allow his teammates’ multiple opportunities to score. On the defensive end, Geben altered shots as well as took a charge.
Geben’s energy was felt by other players on the team, especially guards T.J. Gibbs and Nikola Djogo. Gibbs had 19 points and Djogo had 12 for the Irish, keeping them in the game until the final possession.
With 1:05 remaining in the game and Notre Dame trailing 67-66, Gibbs drove to the basket and made a layup. However, he was called for an offensive foul. That was a huge momentum killer for the Irish because if the basket had counted they would have been up by one with Gibbs at the line for one free throw.
On North Carolina’s very next possession, Joel Berry got an offensive rebound and was fouled by Gibbs in the act of shooting. Berry calmly knocked down both free throws to give the Tar Heels a one-point lead with six seconds remaining.
With one last chance to score, Mike Brey put the ball in the hands of T.J. Gibbs to make something happen, and he missed two chances to score. The second chance to score was a great look off of an offensive rebound and the shot hit every part of the rim but did not fall.
In what is definitely a tough loss for the Irish to swallow, they played a great game against a very talented and well-coached North Carolina team, losing 69-68. It seems as though the formula for wins moving forward for Notre Dame includes getting offensive rebounds, which they got 20 today, and playing the game at their pace and with a lot of energy.
Moving forward, Notre Dame hosts Louisville on Tuesday before traveling to South Carolina to face the Clemson Tigers on Saturday.