Prior to opening the tournament in Brooklyn, Nortre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey talked about how his freshmen had gleaned enough experience from a challenging ACC season to be relied upon. On Sunday afternoon, one of those freshmen put himself in the right place at the right time to make the right play to save Notre Dame's season. Down 1 to the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks with 1.5 seconds on the clock, Rex Pflueger tipped home a Zach Auguste miss to put the Irish in to the Sweet Sixteen for the second consecutive season. The Irish prevailed by the slimmest of margins in a game that went back and forth the entire afternoon. With the 76-75 victory, Notre Dame moves on to face the winner of Wisconsin and Xavier in the East Regional Semi-Final on Friday.
The win further extends the program record for victories over two seasons and represents two consecutive trips to the second weekend of the big dance after a substantial drought. While Plfueger will steal the headlines with his heroic tip, the game was characterized by another balanced offensive performance by the Irish. Three Irish starters ended the game in double figures, with 3 other ND contributors scoring 8 or 9.
Welcome back to the party Demetrius Jackson. The Irish point guard found ways to reassert himself and put his prodigious athleticism on full display against an undersized SFA backcourt. Jackson scored 18 points on highly efficient 6-8 shooting, including 2-3 from deep. Jackson also chipped in 3 boards, 2 assists and a block in 38 minutes of impressive action.
Senior Zach Auguste continues to play like a man who isn't ready to be done with a career arc that just keeps rising. The double-double machine finished with 16 points on 8-9 shooting and 15 rebounds. He also contributed a block and a steal (that for some reason isn't in the official box score, but was a HUGE play). When the Irish were able to find Auguste, he consistently exploited his size advantage over the Lumberjack bigs and helped carry his team forward with a workman like performance on the boards.
The emergence of V.J. Beachem from the ashes of last season's forgettable post-season continues. It is so impressive to see the smoothest and calmest athlete on the floor continue to make winning plays. While he was only 2-8 from deep, VJ was 4-5 from inside the arc and scored 15 total points with 7 rebounds (6 defensive) on the afternoon. Huge contribution from the junior.
Steve Vasturia chipped in 9 points, but needed 11 shots to get there. He played his usual solid floor game and picked up 5 assists, but was also tagged for 3 turnovers. Of all the Irish, I think getting Steve a week in his own bed and own gym to get himself right will be big. Notre Dame needs Onions to be Onions if they want to swing for the big fences in Philly next weekend. He has to be thrilled to be heading back home.
Bonzie Colson played an incredibly efficient 12 minutes, going 2-3 from the floor and 4-5 from the line to rack up 8 points for the Irish. I found it curious to see Colson limited to less than 15 minutes when it appeared he had an interior advantage versus the Lumberjacks. The guy is just a scorer. He didn't do anything wild, but he made the most of his opportunities.
What might appear to be the most surprising and controversial entry in the box score is Matt Farrell's 31 total minutes played. For a guy who had an equal number turnovers and points in 58 TOTAL minutes of ACC play, his inclusion in the starting line-up this weekend could be considered curious by many. Farrell managed 8 points on 3-5 shooting and was credited with 4 assists to only 2 turnovers. I look forward to the discussion of the sophomore guard's performance in our comment section. I think there are a few ways you could look at it, but overall, he made a contribution in an NCAA Tournament victory.
When it comes to the freshmen, Matt Ryan saw a limited 4 minutes of action in the first half and didn't get up a shot attempt. His partner, however, played a critical 14 minutes and was his usual active self on the defensive end. Pflueger was credited with 2 boards, and assist, a turnover, and a steal to go with his two monster points. I continue to believe the Irish are better with him on the floor and should live with whatever offensive limitations he represents to get his energy on the defensive end of the floor.
Thankfully, it doesn't freakin' matter what I think. The Irish were able to gut and claw out a challenging game. Survive and advance. That's all that matters. Steven F. Austin was determined to make it tough on the Irish. It was a grinding 60 possession game that never saw either side take a double digit lead. Every time the Irish seemed poised to stretch a 6 or 7 point lead into a comfortable margin, the Lumberjacks were able to make a run. Of course, media darling Thomas Walkup led the charge for his side, putting up 21 points. He continued his impressive play, but on a night he was already 0-1 from deep, his decision to pull up for a hero three with his team up 3 and 1:05 left in the game was highly questionable. Senior Demetrious Floyd bombed away with impunity, making 4 of his 9 attempts from deep and finished with 16 points. Senior point guard Trey Pinkney kicked in 5 points and led the Lumberjacks with 8 assists.
Statistically, this game reflected the overall look of it on TV. It was a close battle, with the Irish simply squeaking out one extra scoring possession. The Lumberjacks did what they wanted to do, turning the Irish over 13 times to their 6, and they did a decent job keeping the offensive rebounding percentage close. In the end, the Irish took advantage of great shooting (63% eFG to SFA's 52%) and their ability to draw fouls while attacking the rim. The Irish had 12 made FT's against 51 FGA's (24%) and SFA had 9 FT's against 64 FGA's (14%). In a game where Irish fans were legitimately worried the officials were going to get caught up in the thrill of sending a 14 seed through, the Irish did get the benefit of a late call on rebounding action, and a proper foul called on the Jackson drive to pull the Irish back within one.
In the end, that's what its about. Can you withstand the momentum of David feeling like he's flinging his best rock at you? Can you halt the momentum that's flowing away from you? Can you dig in when you're biggest fans are starting to feel like you're done. The Irish didn't play a perfect game Sunday. There will be plenty of opportunity in film study to limit turnovers and find a way to close out shooters more effectively. Thankfully, they didn't need to play perfectly. They just didn't give a darn that everyone not wearing blue, and green and gold was hoping they'd be done. Instead, they fought on, pulled it out, and moved themselves to Philly for a couple more swings at glory. One shining moment indeed.