This has been a remarkable turnaround season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, bouncing back from an unfathomably ugly first year in the ACC to become a nationally-ranked top ten team and ACC Tournament champion. But it was always building to this.
The Irish under head coach Mike Brey have notoriously been unable to reach past the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. They had done so only once under Brey, back in 2003, an eternity in coaching years. So despite the many accomplishments of his Notre Dame squad this season, winning two games in this tournament was always going to be the difference between validating an amazing season or ending another underachieving postseason and fueling the vocal critics.
For awhile in the second half against the Butler Bulldogs, it looked like another March run would end in disappointment. Despite a ten-point first-half lead, the Irish struggled mightily offensively for long stretches in this one and found themselves trailing the Bulldogs for the first time since the opening minutes with just over 11 minutes remaining.
In fact, Butler's 10-0 run during that stretch saw them not just take a lead but extend it to six behind a Roosevelt Jones lay-up with just over 9 minutes remaining. Suddenly, the Irish had a battle on their hands and were on the wrong end of it for just about the first time all day. The season, and all the goodwill it came with, was slipping away.
But as they have done so many times this season, these Irish battled back. A Demetrius Jackson free throw and three-pointer in consecutive possessions immediately pulled them back within two. Steve Vasturia got to the line and added two of his own to tie it back up. Then a Jackson steal led to a Pat Connaughton bucket on the ensuing possession, and Notre Dame had regained the lead.
It was not going to be that easy, however, as after some buckets back-and-forth, the Irish found themselves up three with under three minutes remaining, only to see Bulldog sharpshooter Kellen Dunham bury a game-tying three from 25 feet out. That three ended the scoring in regulation, but not without plenty of dramatics.
Butler set up for what was likely to be the last shot in regulation, a miss by Jones rebounded by Zach Auguste, only to have Auguste turn the ball back over on a double-dribble while attempting to take it back up the court for one final shot before the buzzer. With two seconds remaining, Butler got a nice turnaround three attempt for Dunham to win it, but in an iconic moment for this Notre Dame season, Connaughton swatted the shot away into the stands from seemingly out of nowhere. A desperation inbound attempt with the fraction of a second remaining was no good, and the game headed to overtime.
Five minutes would determine how this season will be remembered.
With the pressure at its highest, a do-or-die five minute period that would end one team's season, the Irish answered the call. Connaughton made his first three of the game off a brilliant Demetrius Jackson drive-and-kick. Vasturia buried one of his own from the corner off a great Jerian Grant pass. Grant himself took it to the rim to all but seal the game with 21 seconds remaining.
The overtime period was vintage Notre Dame, the same outfit we had seen all season long, fighting for their lives defensively and lighting it up on the other end. Behind a 12-point overtime effort, explosive in a game otherwise marked by its offensive struggles, the 3 seed Irish had fought off the 6 seed Bulldogs and advanced to the Sweet 16.
The Irish were led by Steve Vasturia, who scored a career-high 20 points, including his dagger overtime three. He was joined in double-figures by fellow backcourt mates Jerian Grant (16 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds in all 45 minutes) and Demetrius Jackson (13 points).
Zach Auguste struggled offensively but battled on the boards all night, grabbing 13 rebounds, helping to turn around an Irish rebounding effort that was out-rebounded by Northeastern by 16 to actually win the battle against Butler by 4 rebounds. Connaughton, despite struggling to score as well, grabbed 9 of his own after a season-low 1 against Northeastern.
Butler's incredible effort was led by Roosevelt Jones, returning from a knee injury he sustained against Texas in the Round of 64. Jones scored 23 of his team's 64 points on 9 of 19 shooting despite being hobbled by that injury. Andrew Chrabascz added 20 of his own, which included a perfect 8 for 8 at the free throw line for a guy who shot below 60% on the season.
Notre Dame advances to the Sweet 16 with a huge monkey off the program's back but still plenty to play for. The Midwest regional convenes on Cleveland as Notre Dame and top seed Kentucky await their next opponents to make up the region's final four. The Irish, winner of the battle for Indiana bragging rights, will take on the winner of Sunday's game between Kansas and Wichita State, with both teams fighting for their own state pride in addition to the Sweet 16 berth.
After checking off yet another box for this Notre Dame team's incredible season, there is no telling what they can still accomplish.
Other Thoughts and Observations:
- Mike Brey announced after the game that his mother, Betty, passed away Saturday morning. Reports indicate that Brey did not tell his team about the news until afterwards. I just cannot even imagine what the entire day must have been like for him, or what he was feeling standing on those sidelines, or what he must be feeling now. All I do know is that the Notre Dame community should be very proud to have Mike Brey as its head basketball coach, an all-around good guy who showed up and was there for his team in the most trying of times for him personally.
- On a more professional note, Brey has struggled in March. I didn't need to tell you that. Notre Dame message boards and comment sections have been making that exceedingly clear for years now. But now, he has won 7 straight games in March of 2015 (5 in the postseason), cut down the nets in Greensboro, and advanced to the final 16 in the NCAAs. For someone with his level of overall success, a postseason like this was just a matter of time. I couldn't be happier for him and his accomplishments with this team.
- Roosevelt Jones, how do you do it, man? What an unbelievable game from the hobbled Butler star. It would've been a joy to watch had he not been destroying our team. Performances like that cannot go unmentioned, even in defeat.
- Notre Dame's offensive efficiency on the night was 1.02 points per possession, their third worst performance of the season. That they won tells you how far along they've come along defensively.
- Notre Dame committed 13 turnovers and took 12 fewer shots than the Bulldogs. That they won tells you how far along they've come along defensively.
- Butler is a pretty bad free throw shooting team (69%) but made 86% of their 21 attempts. Unbelievable. What a difference that made in sending this one to overtime in the first place. We can dissect all these strengths and weaknesses all you want, but in these individual games, you just never know. That's why this tournament can be so crazy sometimes.
- That was a big moment for this program. I erroneously predicted that these guys just would not be able to overcome the building pressure from years of tournament failures, but they proved yet again just how different and special they are as a group in the most desperate of circumstances. What a fun team to watch.