Five senior starters, a second-place finish in the nation's toughest conference and a No. 2 seed in the Southwest Region amounted only to a whole bunch of heartache for the Irish in a 71-57 third-round NCAA tournament loss to No. 10 seed Florida State in front of 18,146 at United Center.
"We're disappointed," said Irish coach Mike Brey. "I think that's something that's going to resonate for a while."
The game ended at one minute to midnight eastern time, but the clock had long struck 12 for Notre Dame. Madhouse on Madison? It was only sadness – and plenty of it — for the guys from South Bend. Big East player of the year Ben Hansbrough was hounded into a 5-of-13 shooting night in his final game. He fouled out with 3:19 remaining and finished with 18 points.
"They're one of the best defensive teams in the country," Hansbrough said. "We weren't our best offensively. It's kind of hard to beat that team when you don't make a lot of shots."
Notre Dame shot 30.6 percent from the field, 23.3 percent from 3.
"They take up space like Syracuse," Brey said. "You're going to have to make shots over the top of them."
Tim Abromaitis had 21, the only other Irish to hit double figures.
Notre Dame looked to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003. Instead, it was one win and done for an Irish team that finishes 27-7. Brey's team never really got into a flow offensively, couldn't guard on the other end and were left to scramble out of a double-digit hole it first fell into less than 12 minutes in.
"It's not the best feeling in the world," Hansbrough said of the season coming to a close.
The deficit hit 20 early in the second half. Then 23. An 11-0 run fueled by some furious fullcourt pressure – who knew? — a Hansbrough 3 and a Florida State technical foul that Abromaitis turned into two free throws made it 52-40 with 8:37 remaining.
But no amount of Hansbrough's fiery leadership or Ty Nash's experience or Carleton Scott's versatility or Abromaitis' ability to score points in bunches was going to help make this one get any better. Just a little closer. Brey even turned to seldom-used Joey Brooks in the second half. He offered a spark, but even that soon flickered out.
As interesting as the fans may have wanted it to get, the Irish never did get any closer than 11 points over the final 8:37.
"We were managing a crisis all night," Brey said. "It's exhausting, it really is."
Notre Dame simply was outplayed early at the time it needed to make a statement.
The Irish often talk of getting off to a good start and punching the other team in the mouth with their efficiency and shot-making ability. They were then smacked around so early, it was nearly a knockout long before halftime.
"They're long, athletic," said Nash. "Couldn't do anything about it."
Florida State simply did what it wanted offensively early, shooting 40.7 percent form the field and 58.3 percent from 3 (7-of-12) to lead by as many as 13 the first 20 minutes. Notre Dame trailed by 11 at intermission, its largest deficit since falling into a 12-point halftime hole in late January to Marquette.
When all has worked well the last six weeks of the regular season, fast starts, good starts, solid starts have been the norm. So much so that the other team has to burn a timeout before the first media break.
On Sunday, the Irish fell into a five-point hole in the first 6:36 by allowing Florida State to do as it pleased around the rim. The Seminoles scored 14 points in less than seven minutes – eight in the paint and two 3s. Brey needed a timeout to get everything settled down.
Scott Martin took a charge in the opening minutes, then left soon after with an apparent back injury. He tried loosening it up at the end of the Irish bench, then went to the locker room with trainer Skip Meyer and team doctor Fred Ferlic. Martin returned to the game minutes later but floated through the first half scoreless, going 0-for-3. He was a non-factor the whole night, finishing with four points on 1-of-9 from the field.