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Saturday, March 2, 2024
The Observer

Irish drop ACC opener against Syracuse in final seconds

All season long, Notre Dame men’s basketball has come through in late-game situations to pull out narrow victories. On Saturday, the Irish came up just short of doing so once again, falling 62-61 to Syracuse after Orange guard Judah Mintz’s game-winning layup in the final seconds. With the loss, the Irish will begin ACC play with an 0-1 record for the fifth straight season.

“We figured it would [come down to] game situations,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said after the game. “We needed to get that one stop and we couldn’t get it.”

Despite the noon tip-off at Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame’s offense came out firing. In a continuation of the hot shooting performance that helped them take down No. 20 Michigan State on Wednesday, graduate student guards Dane Goodwin and Cormac Ryan each made a pair of three-pointers in the opening minutes as the Irish built an early advantage.

However, the Orange quickly erased that lead behind the dominant play of Jesse Edwards. Notre Dame had no answer for the 6-foot-11 senior and allowed him to dominate the boards and score around the basket at will. Edwards scored 16 points and grabbed six rebounds in the first half alone before the Irish utilized frequent double teams after halftime in order to limit his impact.

Early in the half, Irish freshman guard JJ Starling briefly went to the locker room after a shoulder injury. He returned to the game soon after and was impactful on both ends of the court despite struggling to make shots. Starling, as he has consistently done throughout the season, used his elite quickness to effortlessly drive past defenders and finish at the rim several times on his way to seven points. Brey lamented the Irish offense not being able to present Starling with more opportunities to attack Syracuse’s signature 2-3 zone.

“I know [Starling] had a tough night shooting but I’m thrilled with where he’s at. He’s guarding, he’s defending, I thought he was great with the ball,” Brey said. “We probably have to look at ways of getting him drives more against zone.”

The latter stages of the first half turned into a back-and-forth affair, with Syracuse’s Edwards and Joe Girard III keeping the Orange in the game despite Notre Dame making 8 threes in the period. The teams went into the break knotted at 35-35.

After an explosive start, the game quickly became a defensive struggle, primarily due to some timely defensive adjustments made by Syracuse. In the first half, the Orange had struggled to defend the high post, allowing Notre Dame players to receive passes and either shoot or find open shooters in the corners. Following the halftime break, Syracuse moved Edwards higher up in their zone to take away those opportunities, and the effect that it had on limiting the Irish’s ball movement was noticeable.

“They had us pushed out a little bit more in the second half, as that zone can do,” Brey said. “We couldn’t get into the lane to kick it out, we couldn’t get to the foul line.”

Several of Notre Dame’s second-half possessions saw them unable to get the ball inside the arc and eventually be forced to settle for a difficult three-point attempt late in the shot clock. Syracuse’s changes were perhaps most targeted at stopping Goodwin, who is extremely effective in that high post area and scored 13 points in the first half. Goodwin was complimentary of Syracuse’s second-half defense after the game.

“We couldn’t really get it into the middle, kind of just passed it around up top and then got [in late shot-clock situations] and we weren’t really sure what to do,” Goodwin said. “That’s just a matter of working through it and figuring it out as we go, but credit to [Syracuse]. They made some changes and we couldn’t figure it out.”

With newly-open space in the back of Syracuse’s defense, Notre Dame looked to take advantage by attempting passes over the top on several occasions. While this was effective at times, such as when Starling found fellow freshman Ven-Allen Lubin for a huge alley-oop dunk in the second half, a lack of execution forced the Irish into several turnovers.

“The [plays] that stick in my mind are when they creep up, they push you out, we throw over the top and I think we were 2-7 [on converting those passes],” Brey said. “Then they’re just pushing you out further because you haven’t made them pay over the top.”

With just over two minutes left to play, a Girard III layup put Syracuse ahead 60-55, their largest lead of the game. The Irish responded quickly, as Ryan drilled a clutch three-pointer, his fourth of the game, to trim the lead back down to two. After getting a critical stop on defense, Notre Dame graduate student guard Marcus Hammond made a tough jump shot while being fouled to tie the game. After he converted on the ensuing free throw, the Irish led by one with under 30 seconds remaining. Hammond, a transfer from Niagara, played in his first game with the Irish after suffering an MCL sprain in the preseason. He contributed six points and three assists in 19 minutes off the bench and Brey spoke about how impressed he was with Hammond’s play.

“We throw him into the fire and I thought he was fabulous. He’s in there making plays, he makes the play to give us the lead, steps up and makes the free throw,” Brey said. “We throw him in an ACC game after five weeks off and he’s not afraid.”

Trailing by one, Syracuse looked to Mintz, a freshman who showed veteran poise to put the Orange ahead after what had been a tough game for him offensively. Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim described Mintz as someone who “wants to take that shot.” In the final seconds, Notre Dame found Goodwin, who had made a game-winning three-pointer against Lipscomb earlier in the season. While that shot had been a clean, wide-open look, he was forced to take a heavily contested fadeaway from deep in the corner against Syracuse. Goodwin’s shot was on line but just short, and the Orange walked away as 62-61 winners after spoiling what could have been a perfect week for the Irish.

With the loss, Notre Dame falls to 6-2 (0-1 ACC) but remains optimistic in the fact that their roster is now at full strength for the first time all season following Hammond’s return. According to Brey, this will allow the Irish to get valuable practice reps in advance of two games next week, something they have been unable to do thus far. Up next, Notre Dame will look to take care of business at home against non-conference opponents, playing host to Boston University on Wednesday and Marquette on Sunday.