Irish senior John Mooney has been having a great year, but there is one issue
The Irish co-captain is a great rebounder, and he’s the team’s leading scorer, but his free-throw shooting has been a problem this season.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — John Mooney does so many things right for Notre Dame that it doesn’t seem fair to seize on his one major flaw.
But the 6-9 senior co-captain would be the first to rip himself for all the points (36) he has left at the foul line for the Irish. Two more missed throws with just over two minutes left in overtime proved costly in a 50-49 loss at Virginia on Tuesday.
The defending national champs were on the ropes, but Mooney — on a night that included a game-high 14 rebounds and his 41st career double-double — couldn’t convert with the game tied at 49 and the Irish seeking their fifth consecutive ACC win.
That left Notre Dame’s leading scorer with a .644 percentage from the line, well below the .769 he shot a year ago in his breakout season.
“Lately, it’s been free throws,” Mooney said. “It’s just being confident in your stroke.”
It’s not like Mooney is helpless at the line. He went 8-for-9 against Georgia Tech on Feb. 1, tying a career high with 28 points and punctuating a four-game stretch in which Mooney shot 25-for-30 from the line.
That showing against Tech came on the heels of Kelly Tripucka, a career 79.8 percent free-throw shooter at Notre Dame four decades ago, challenging Mooney in front of his teammates while visiting practice a day earlier.
“I said, ‘Man, you’re a great player; you’ve got a nose for the ball, and you rebound,’ ’’ Tripucka recalled on the day he entered the program’s Ring of Honor. “I said, ‘Are you a good free-throw shooter?’ He said no. I said, ‘You have too good of a touch. That tells me you don’t want to get fouled.’ ’’
Tripucka shook his head.
“It’s mental,” he said of a player who would join him in the school’s 1,000-point club.
Six of Notre Dame’s nine losses have come by a combined 10 points. That includes a two-point loss to Indiana at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in which Mooney missed four of his eight free throws.
Of course, without Mooney doing so much heavy lifting under the boards — his 13.0 rebounding average ranked second in the nation to Quinnipiac’s Kevin Marfo — Notre Dame likely wouldn’t have been in that many close games.
A late bloomer who originally committed to Florida — then-Gators coach Billy Donovan and his family knew him from the AAU scene in central Florida — Mooney only landed with the Irish after Donovan bolted for the NBA’s Thunder.
When Mooney was left off the 25-player midseason watch list for the Wooden Award as college basketball’s player of the year, Irish coach Mike Brey was openly critical of the selection process.
“If coach Wooden was alive today, he would fire all of that advisory board,” Brey said in January. “You mean to tell me John Wooden wouldn’t appreciate how Johnny Mooney plays? My gosh. I don’t know what else he can do.”
Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim then took up the torch a week or so later when Syracuse passed through town.
“If John Mooney is not one of the top 25 players in the country, I don’t know anything about college basketball — literally nothing,” Boeheim said in an unsolicited response.
“It’s absolutely a joke that he’s not one of the top 25. What Mooney has done is absolutely remarkable. He’s a great player, and it’s amazing that he’s not recognized.”
Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner heaped praise on Mooney, as well, suggesting he has a pro future.
“I think Mooney’s excellent; I’m a big fan of Mooney,” Pastner said. “Too bad Billy Donovan didn’t stay in college because he’s just been a Georgia Tech killer. When you rebound like he rebounds, I think there’s a place for him in professional basketball. That stat translates.”
Now if Mooney could just get a few more free throws to fall, he might get a chance to open even more eyes in March.