When Notre Dame held the ball and an eight-point lead over third-ranked Ohio State with one minute remaining Saturday night, it appeared the Irish were about to atone for some bad early-season losses with a much-needed marquee win.
Lenzelle Smith scored a go-ahead layup with 16 seconds left as Ohio State remained undefeated this season by out-scoring Notre Dame 14-3 in the final 51 seconds to emerge with a 64-61 victory. The Irish seemingly did everything in their power to hand the game to Ohio State in the final minute, from critical turnovers, to ill-advised fouls, to costly missed free throws.
It wasn't worrisome for Notre Dame when LaQuinton Ross sank a floater in the lane with 51 seconds to go to cut Ohio State's deficit to six. It was a bit more alarming for the Irish a few seconds later when Demetrius Jackson got trapped and stripped along the sideline by Ross and Shannon Scott, leading to a Smith layup. And by the time an ill-advised jump pass out of a trap by Jerian Grant turned into another turnover and two free throws for Scott, it was clear the Notre Dame lead was no longer safe.
The Irish still led by four with 32 seconds left when Pat Connaughton swiped at Smith and made contact with his wrist as he attempted a corner 3-pointer. Smith sank all three of his free throws, seldom-used reserve Notre Dame guard Steve Vasturia clanked the front end of his one-and-one and Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft found Smith for the go-ahead layup that gave the Buckeyes the lead for good.
If Ohio State's comeback provided the Buckeyes (12-0) with the signature win they had previously lacked, Notre Dame's collapse represents a blown opportunity the Irish (8-4) could not afford to squander.
Defensive woes and a lack of consistent interior game contributed to Notre Dame suffering a pair of disappointing home losses earlier this season against Indiana State and North Dakota State. The Irish began to make up for those setbacks with a victory against Indiana last Saturday, but the match-up with the Buckeyes represented a chance to get back on firm footing entering ACC play.
The most frustrating aspect of the loss for Notre Dame is the Irish played a brilliant second half until their final-minute meltdown.
On offense, Notre Dame erased a seven-point halftime deficit by spreading Ohio State's stingy defense out with a four-guard look and attacking forward LaQuinton Ross off the dribble with whomever he guarded. Grant and Connaughton were especially effective, tallying 18 and 13 points respectively.
On defense, normally Notre Dame's problem area, the Irish were fundamentally sound and took advantage of Ohio State's ice-cold perimeter shooting. The Buckeyes were 3 of 18 from behind the 3-point arc and got only six points from their bench.
None of that mattered though, not after the Irish crumbled in such spectacular fashion in the final minute.
Ohio State left New York elated by its comeback. Notre Dame left wondering what happened.
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