It was right there for Notre Dame, a journey through the wilds of college basketball over the past four years and ready to dissolve into the sport’s softer destinations.
The Fighting Irish led, 52-49, thanks to a free throw from Blake Wesley, and the scoreboard showed just 129 ticks remaining in the game.
But Wesley missed that second free throw, the No. 11 seed Notre Dame missed his next four field goal attempts, had several critical turnovers and watched the No. 3 seed Texas Tech finish the game – and the Notre Dame’s season – with a 10-1 close ran into a 59-53 loss in the NCAA West Tournament Regional Round of 32.
“We had our chances,” Ireland coach Mike Brey said after his team won NCAA Tournament games this week in Dayton, Ohio, and Friday in San Diego to set up the matchup. “I said to them (Saturday) night, ‘Would you be okay with 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 games.
“We emptied the tank, physically. Not just today but starting Wednesday night. … We sort of emotionally drained him. Everyone got fully involved. I feel for them. I’m disappointed because I can’t train this kernel anymore.
A core group – Dane Goodwin, Prentiss Hubb and Nate Laszewski – who had absorbed 46 losses in their first three college seasons had positioned themselves, with rookie Wesley and Yale transfer Paul Atkinson Jr., as well as Cormac Ryan and Trey Wertz. , Sunday night to extend their season longer than any Notre Dame team in six years.
“Obviously it’s tough,” said Goodwin, who led the Irish with 14 points and tied the team’s best honors with eight rebounds. “You never want to go out, but I’m glad we came out to fight.
“We really gave ourselves a chance. We fought until the end.”
Yet Texas Tech (27-9), among the nation’s defensive leaders and accustomed to games only a mother can love, never panicked even when Notre Dame pulled off a 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 all four of his 3-point attempts.
The Red Raiders, under first-year coach Mark Adams after Chris Beard left after last season to take over at Texas, outscored the Irish by six, 42-46, and whipped them into the painting, 24-10.
What’s more, TTU smothered the perimeter of Notre Dame by firing on the stretch – the Irish scored their ninth hat-trick with more than five minutes to play, then never scored another – and kept the ND team still shared at just eight assists.
“We needed 11 (3 points),” Brey said. “We needed double digit numbers. I’m telling you, I thought when we got going in the second half… that’s why we went four guards in the second half. You had to do 11 or 12 to win. Double digit numbers are a key for us. We got into a rhythm doing it. And we looked good.
“But you know what they do? They wear you out and your legs look a little different.
Notre Dame collected just 17 of 52 shots from the field, and after making each of its six free throw attempts in the first half, it was just four of nine in the second half.
Although the match featured seven draws and 12 lead changes, the Red Raiders led for over 26 minutes. They got a game-high 15 points from Kevin Obanor, who was nearly traded out of the program, and a combined 28 points from Kevin McCullar and Bryson Williams.
“Those last two or three minutes, I thought I didn’t want this season to end, and I know Coach Brey felt 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 came out in the offseason with a myriad of questions. Goodwin, Hubb and Laszewski can each return for another season, despite having played the past four years, due to the NCAA’s COVID-19 waiver. No one has officially said what he’s going to do, although Hubb recently explained that it was his “last outing” and that he had to leave it all on the pitch.
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 get an extra season, but it looked like a long extreme term.
Ryan said earlier this month that he intended to return to Notre Dame.
However, Wesley has been targeted as a unique potential player who has been widely slated as an NBA first-round pick this summer. Less clear, however, is Wesley’s status as a potential lottery pick – top 14 selection – which has fluctuated.
“We have a group of guys here who have to make decisions,” Brey said. “The big problem is that nobody has to make that decision quickly. I will meet them all individually on Tuesday and Wednesday. We will work on it. We have balanced guys. If everyone wants to test the waters, register your name, go ahead. Can I test the waters? I’m just kidding).
“Go ahead, let everyone test the waters. I’m very excited about what’s to come and I’ve been asking our assistants every day now that it’s March what’s happening on the portal (NCAA Transfer) because we might pick a few there -low. This is another process now that we will be engaging in for the next six weeks, two months, and possibly until summer school.
“Each of those guys I have to remember might have their own schedule, and I’ll stick to that because they gave us everything they had this year.”
At the end of the season, the Irish finished as Atlantic Coast Conference regular season runners-up, won multiple NCAA Tournament games for the first time in six years, and won 24 or more games for the only fourth time in the past decade.