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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Irish magic vanishes as Notre Dame falls to North Carolina

When senior forward Bonzie Colson went down with a fractured foot, the number of games Notre Dame was expected to win dropped drastically.

When senior guard Matt Farrell went down with a sprained ankle, many predicated the Irish would be dead in the water in the brutal ACC conference schedule.

But Saturday night at Purcell Pavilion, the Irish gave the defending champions all they could handle, dropping a tight 69-68 game to No. 20 North Carolina.

And for a split second, it appeared the Irish still had a little bit of magic left over from their victory over Syracuse on Jan. 6.

Notre Dame (13-5, 3-2 ACC) lead 68-67 with under a minute left and the Tar Heels (14-4, 3-2 ACC) holding possession.

For 29 seconds, Notre Dame defended well, but North Carolina grabbed an offensive rebound. And with a second left on the shot clock, the referees called a foul on Irish sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs.

Kathryne Robinson | The Observer
Irish sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs dribbles around a defender during Notre Dame's 88-59 win over Bethel in an exhibition game at Purcell Pavilion on Nov. 3.

Tar Heels senior guard Joel Berry II hit both free throws, and North Carolina led 69-68 with 7.1 seconds left.

Gibbs — Notre Dame’s leading scorer on the night with 19 points — took the inbounds pass all the way up the court and chucked up a contested shot.

The shot hit the rim and bounced back to Gibbs, who tipped the rebound toward the hoop.

Unlike its victories over Wichita State and Syracuse, however, the magic that propelled Notre Dame to late-game wins vanished, as Gibbs’ tip bounced all the way around the rim and out.

“Just knowing a shot that I work on, I knew I could hit it,” Gibbs said. “[I’m] frustrated with myself that I get that opportunity and I’m not able to just follow through for my brothers. I know they have my back, and we have to keep moving on.”

Notre Dame was again without Farrell, who missed his third-consecutive start since spraining his ankle on Jan. 3 against North Carolina State.

In his place, however, the Irish got career nights from freshman forward D.J. Harvey and sophomore wing Nikola Djogo.

Djogo put in a career-high 12 points, shooting 3-of-6 from beyond the 3-point arc, including two huge makes back-to-back in the late second half to give the Irish the lead.

“I’m finally shooting the way I should be,” Djogo said. “I stayed confident, and once I saw that first free throw — as a shooter you always want to see one go in — and that first free throw that I hit let me settle in. My open looks were good shots, and I was calm, confident and knew what to do.”

Harvey chipped in eight points, along with nine rebounds and two assists in his first premier ACC matchup.

“You look at D.J. Harvey, he can get you eight or nine rebounds,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said of Harvey’s performance. “What a night for him. He played 37 minutes? Man, he’s going to need a stretcher.

“I’m impressed with all four of those guys [Djogo, Harvey, junior forward Elijah Burns and sophomore forward John Mooney] and how we have asked them to deliver and really, for the most part, they’ve done a heck of a job.”

With their two leading scorers out, Notre Dame stayed in the game with their offensive rebounding — a stat the Irish have not been known for in recent years.

Last year, when Notre Dame played North Carolina in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Tar Heels gathered 17 offensive rebounds to Notre Dame’s seven. On Saturday, Notre Dame flipped the script and outrebounded North Carolina 45-37, with a 20-13 edge on the offensive glass.

“We rotate those four big guys, they’re fresh and they’re flying around,” Brey said. “That’s helped us offensively with two scorers out. That gets us to the bonus quicker. It’s a thing we’re hanging our hat on.”

But Notre Dame’s rebounding faltered when it was needed most: on North Carolina’s final possession of the game, as Berry was able to grab an errant shot and get fouled to make the game-winning free throws.

The game was neck-and-neck from the opening tip with 24 lead changes, and neither team led by more than six points.

Tar Heels junior forward Luke Maye made his presence felt from the start of the game, slotting in nine points before the halfway point in the first half on a couple of jump shots.

Maye’s injection of offense gave North Carolina a small early lead, and an 0-for-11 stretch of shooting by the Irish left the door open for the Tar Heels to take control of the game.

But Notre Dame’s defense held, especially on the defensive glass, and the Irish found their way back into the game with contributions across the board. A 3 from junior guard Rex Pflueger tied the game at 23 with 5:40 left in the first half, and then 3-pointers by Djogo and Gibbs gave the Irish a 29-27 advantage at the under-four-minute media timeout.

However, North Carolina took a 37-33 lead thanks to a few offensive rebounds, though Notre Dame battled back to a halftime score of 40-37. Eight Irish players saw playing time in the first half and seven of them scored, with Gibbs’ nine points leading the team.

The first half also set a physical tone for the evening. Loose balls and rebounds were contested with maximum effort, and the referees let the teams play for the most part. Both teams found 10 offensive rebounds in the half, with the Tar Heels leading in second-chance points, 15-14.

Sarah Olson | The Observer
Irish senior forward Martinas Geben dunks the ball during Notre Dame's 88-62 win over Mount St. Mary's on Nov. 13 at Purcell Pavilion.

Notre Dame came out of halftime with defensive intensity, and layups from Harvey, Gibbs and senior forward Martinas Geben gave the Irish a 48-47 lead with 14:40 left.

But the defending champs put together a 7-0 run on the back of a 3-pointer and a layup from senior forward Theo Pinson.

Down 56-50 and with Gibbs limping from a fall, the Irish needed to respond to avoid letting the game get out of hand.

And Brey’s squad responded. A layup from Geben, a last-second put-back from Pflueger and two 3-pointers from Gibbs tied the score at 60 with 6:53 left in the game.

A stop and a Djogo 3 made it 63-60.

Another stop and a Djogo 3 made it 66-60.

But the Tar Heels reeled it back in with two layups and a dunk, and they would eventually win the game on Berry’s free throws.

“They’re angry,” Brey said. “I said ‘Let’s be angry until 7 [p.m.] Tuesday.’ They’re angry, and I think that’s a really good frame of mind to be in.”

The Irish will receive reinforcements when they take on Louisville on Tuesday evening, as Farrell will return to the lineup. Brey said Farrell will practice Sunday and Monday and start the game Tuesday.

“Farrell will really energize our guys, and we need that now,” Brey said. “They need to know we’re getting Matt ready for Tuesday. That’ll change the whole atmosphere.”