For 20 minutes, everything was right for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The offense was clicking. Pat Connaughton could not miss. The defense was dialed in. The Irish played as good a first half as they had played all season and went into halftime up 18 on the Miami Hurricanes.
Then it all came crashing down. A team that shot 63% in the first half missed its first 11 field goal attempts of the second. Meanwhile, Miami came charging back, slowly closing the lead until they drew even at 47. It was then, 12 full minutes into the half, that Jerian Grant finally laid in the team's first second half field goal.
From that point on, what was once a blowout turned into a back-and-forth affair, neither team with much of a rhythm on offense. Notre Dame's offense finally showed signs of life with back-to-back possessions ending in a Steve Vasturia three and Demetrius Jackson lay-up just after Miami took its first lead of the game.
With two minutes remaining and his Irish nursing a four-point lead coming out of a timeout with the ball, Jackson willed his way into the lane for a huge lay-in in what was easily the biggest possession of the game. After that, in what was earlier a laugher and sure victory came down to inbounding and free throws to hold off the desperate Hurricanes.
Notre Dame, for all its failings in the second half, withstood the pressure down the stretch and was finally able to close out the Hurricanes, 70-63.
The Irish were led by Steve Vasturia in this one, who not only led the team in scoring with 16, but made big play after big play and held Sheldon McClellan to 10 points on just 4 of 11 shooting. He was joined in double-figures by the rest of the Irish starters, including Zach Auguste, who nearly had a double-double (11 points, 9 rebounds).
Miami was led by Tonye Jekiri's 11 points and 11 rebounds, and his importance was all the more evident after Jekiri fouled out and the Hurricane offense largely stalled until desperation time. All told, Miami went nearly 7 minutes down the stretch without scoring a field goal before the final minute.
The Irish will surely be disappointed with such a lackluster second half effort against a bubble team they had on the ropes going into halftime. That said, they do advance to face the 2 seed Duke Blue Devils, who were actually able to finish what they started earlier in the evening against NC State. Notre Dame has the late time slot yet again with an approximate tip-off at 9:30pm on ESPN.
Other Thoughts and Observations:
- This was one of the more complete Zach Auguste efforts on both ends of the floor. If he would've made his free throws, he could have really been a go-to guy for Notre Dame when they were struggling.
- I thought Brey tinkered a little too much with his lineups tonight, which seemed to feed into the struggling psyche of that team in the second half. It's a tough balance between changing to get something that will work and staying the course to keep everyone's heads on straight, and I thought he uncharacteristically leaned a little too heavy on the former.
- If you watch this team and are still questioning why Steve Vasturia is playing so much, I just don't know what to tell you anymore. Tonight's MVP, and it's not even close.
- The zone worked against the Irish again in that it forced turnovers, but I just can't give it credit for missing all those open threes. One three made in the second half? Just seems so unlikely.
- Notre Dame finds its way into yet another conference semifinal. I think we take that for granted these last few years a little too much, but can they really finally get over the hump? It will take something close to tonight's first half times two to take down this Duke team on a 12-game winning streak. I'm certainly not writing off their chances of repeating that late January night in South Bend, but I don't feel great about it either.
- Thanks a lot for collapsing down the stretch Texas, West Virginia, and Oklahoma State. The Irish get virtually no help to nab one of those NCAA 3 seeds.
- This team can play winning, good-enough-to-get-you-to-the-Final-Four level defense. It certainly doesn't consistently, which the numbers reflect, but we have seen it so many times this season them locking down opponents, particularly when things are not going well offensively. Can they do that against, say, a Utah in the second round of the NCAAs when they absolutely have to? We'll have to wait and see.
- Honestly, for this team to have gone into full meltdown mode and then bounce back, settle itself, and win a ballgame on this stage speaks very well for them. I couldn't keep my composure and I was watching from my couch. They just got after it and kept letting it fly and ultimately won out. Impressive qualities, even amidst a nightmare second half.
- At this point, Notre Dame has held serve. A loss tomorrow night would really put the pressure on in the NCAAs to finally do something. Another semifinal and first weekend exit just doesn't cut it. This team is supposed to be special. It's time we finally get what we've been waiting for these next two weekends.