No. 8 Louisville served fried Fighting Irish on senior night at the KFC Yum! Center Saturday with a 73-57 victory to close out Big East Conference regular-season play. Notre Dame, which had no answer for Cardinals senior center Gorgui Dieng, who finished with a game-high 20 points and 11 rebounds, slipped to 23-8 overall and 11-7 in conference play.
Senior center Garrick Sherman scored a team-high 14 points in Saturday's loss at Louisville.
The Irish will head to New York City as the No. 6 seed at the Big East Championship at Madison Square Garden and will begin their quest for their first league tourney crown in their last appearance. Notre Dame, scheduled for the 9 p.m. slot Wednesday, faces the winner of the DePaul-Rutgers game Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals (26-5, 14-4) lick their fingers and head to the Big Apple as the No. 2 seed and co-regular season champs along with Georgetown (24-5, 14-4) and Marquette (23-7, 14-4). Louisville, Georgetown, Marquette and Pittsburgh (24-7, 12-6) earned double-byes and are off until Thursday’s quarterfinals. Syracuse matched Notre Dame’s 11-7 league record, followed by Connecticut and Villanova at 10-8. The Huskies can’t participate in the postseason because of poor academic results.
Taking advantage of high-percentage shots early and finding success from deep later in the first half, Louisville got out to a 22-16 lead through the first 11 minutes of play. Senior guard Peyton Siva sandwiched a lob dunk to sophomore forward Chane Behanan with 3-pointers en route to a 37-27 advantage at intermission.
Louisville shot 66.7 percent (16-for-24) from the floor and 4-for-7 from 3-point land in the first half and 51 percent (26-for-51) for the game.
A spark was found a few minutes into the second frame when the Irish scored six unanswered points, including dunks from Sherman (game-high 14 points) and freshman forward Zach Auguste. Connaughton added a layup, which turned his game around. The sophomore guard finished with 13 points. Sherman’s jam trimmed the deficit to 43-37.
A series of three turnovers and a Dieng block on Cooley over the course of Notre Dame’s next eight possessions gave the Cardinals an opportunity to go for the kill and get the record crowd of 22,815 at the Yum! Center rocking. Dieng delivered a saved ball to give Louisville a double-digit lead with around nine minutes to play and the senior night rout was on.
Louisville kept the pressure on and Notre Dame struggled with even elementary things such as inbound plays, never putting together more than a couple possessions in a row free from interruption.
“I thought it was an unbelievable college atmosphere,” Irish head coach Mike Brey told UND.com after the loss. “The Yum! Center is always so fun to play in. But they were waiting on us, especially after that five-overtime loss to us a month ago. We did turn it over at key times and that really hurt us; it got us in a hole we could never really dig out of.”
Starting forwards Tom Knight and Jack Cooley weren’t factors in the first half, and couldn’t get much going in the second frame. Cooley finished with seven points and seven rebounds, and Knight chipped in only a bucket and one board.
“I know Tom Knight and Jack [Cooley] aren’t happy with the way they played,” Brey said. We’ll get them going in New York on Wednesday. Garrick Sherman and Zach Auguste gave us good minutes, and when we have four big guys, it’s nice to have those options. I was very pleased with what Austin Burgett gave us. We threw him into a tough atmosphere.”
Atkins and fellow junior guard Jerian Grant ended the day with nine and eight points, respectively. Grant was just 2-for-12 from the floor. Burgett and Auguste each had two points for the Irish, which shot 39.3 percent (22-for-56) from the field and 5-for-19 (26.3 percent) from 3-point range for the game. Notre Dame finished with 11 turnovers compared to Louisville’s 10.
Siva played his last game on Louisville’s home court and netted 13 points and five assists. Long-range specialist Luke Hancock came off the bench for 10 points for the Cardinals, which were 6-for-17 from 3-point land and 26-for-51 (51 percent) from the floor.
“We’re disappointed, but I’m very, very proud of this group — what they’ve done in the regular season to go 11-7,” Brey added. “We survived a Scott Martin injury and we’re in solid position for both tournaments. I think we’re excited to go into the postseason together.
“I’m very proud of it. Anytime you can get to double-digit wins in this league … and we played an ‘A’ schedule; we played a tougher schedule. I’m thrilled. When Scott Martin went down and we were 3-3, I didn’t know if that was actually possible. I wondered if we could get to the NIT.”
Now it’s on to New York, where the Irish will practice at John Jay University Monday and Tuesday.
“We’re used to playing this late night slot, and 9 o’clock means 9:45, quite frankly,” Brey said of Wednesday’s scheduled tip-off time. “We’re excited to go to New York City. It’s a little bittersweet that it’s the last Big East tournament for Notre Dame. For me, I hope we can have a real enjoyable experience.”