Sure, it may seem more appropriate to talk about the decision to start Matt Farrell, the big second-half comeback, another Zach Auguste double-double, or any of a number of other story lines from this game.
But V.J. Beachem seems like the right man on which we should focus our attention. Beachem finished with a game-high 18 points on a perfect 7 of 7 shooting, including five points when the game was in the balance to tip the scales in Notre Dame's favor for good.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish struggled mightily in the first half, spotting the Michigan Wolverines a 12-point halftime lead thanks to a bunch of turnovers and ineffective defense. Irish fans were ready to pin the blame for another NCAA Tournament flame-out on Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey's rash decision to start Matt Farrell, who had zero career starts before this NCAA Tournament game.
In reality, it was a bundle of factors that led to the 12-point halftime deficit, which included Farrell but also a zone defense that allowed Michigan to make some open shots and gain some confidence following some less-than-stellar shooting days recently.
But the Notre Dame team that came out in the second half was an entirely different one than the one that we saw for the first 20 minutes. The Irish scored 5 points right out the gates to cut the substantial halftime lead to 7, as Steve Vasturia earned two free throws then hit a corner three reminiscent of some of his biggest moments from last season.
That brief run foreshadowed a terrific second half for the Irish, which saw them outscore the Wolverines 41 to 22. A Michigan team that shot 51% in the first half finished the game at 40%, as a re-energized Notre Dame defense made every possession a struggle for the Wolverines in the game's final 20 minutes.
Notre Dame was finally able to draw even with just over 12 minutes remaining after Matt Ryan hit his lone three for the game in his home state, knotting the score at 48. A V.J. Beachem three minutes later vaulted the Irish to a 51-48 lead that they would almost immediately relinquish after a quick Michigan 6-0 run.
But from there, it was all Irish, as Notre Dame held a 19-9 advantage in the remaining 8 minutes of the game. That 8-minute stretch included plenty of great defense, led by freshman Rex Pflueger, but Beachem's 8 points down the stretch were really the difference for the Irish. Key free throws from Pflueger (2 points, 2 blocks, 2 rebounds) and Bonzie Colson (12 points, 5 rebounds) sealed the deal for the Irish.
Zach Auguste (10 points, 12 rebounds) and Demetrius Jackson (11 points, 5 rebounds) also deserve mention, particularly Auguste, who kept the team even remotely in the game in the disastrous first half. But mostly, it was that Irish defense, which held the likes of Zak Irvin (9 points, 4 of 16 FGs), Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (15 points, 5 of 12), Derrick Walton Jr. (10 points, 4 of 13), and Duncan Robinson (9 points, 3 of 7) all below 50% shooting en route to the victory.
What looked like a sure loss turned into a dramatic win over a rival school that propels this team into a great, great Sunday match-up against Stephen F. Austin for the right to advance to the Sweet 16. It is certainly tempting to look ahead, and we will certainly be doing that in the next couple of days, but let's take the opportunity to revel in the great comeback NCAA Tournament victory over a hated rival.