Of all the things that could have doomed the five-seed Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the NCAA Tournament, nobody would have ever guessed it would be free throws.
The Irish, who entered the tournament as the nation’s best team from the charity stripe, missed seven free throws. But the 12-seed Princeton Tigers couldn’t hit their open looks in the final minute and the Irish escaped with an ugly win, 60-58.
It had the feeling of another 5-12 upset before Princeton’s bid for a game-winner clanked off the rim with two seconds left.
Matt Farrell struggled in the second half as the Irish offense went stagnant. Farrell would miss a free throw on the one-and-one that could have iced the game. Instead the Tigers’ Devin Cannady had a chance to pull off the upset, but it wouldn’t go.
Bonzie Colson finished with 18 points on the day, but struggled himself before coming up with big buckets down the stretch. Steve Vasturia shot just 3-for-12 from the field, and V.J. Beachem managed just two points. Regardless, the Irish advance — which is really all that matters at this point in the year.
Farrell, who earned his first career start a year ago in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, came out hot to start the first half with two three-pointers to help give the Irish an early 9-3 lead.
The Tigers responded with six straight points (all in the paint) to tie the game at nine. After Notre Dame took back the lead with a Martinas Geben layup, sophomore Rex Pflueger took an elbow to the head and was rushed to the locker room with a bloodied face. He would require stitches but returned to the game with four minutes remaining in the first half.
Princeton has been known for its perimeter shooting, but came out cold from downtown in the first half, making only two of their first 11 threes. However, the Irish couldn’t capitalize and missed some shots of their own as the game remained close throughout the first 12 minutes.
The Irish were able to rattle off a 10-0 run during the Tigers’ cold shooting stretch, but Spencer Weisz provided a response with a deep three and assisted on another triple as Princeton closed the gap to two in the blink of an eye.
A banged-up Pflueger scored four points down the stretch to put the Irish up six at the half. Had the Tigers hit more of their open threes, the roles may have been reversed.
The Irish had their chances to pull away early in the second half as the Tigers continued to struggle from outside, but Notre Dame had struggles of their own at the rim as Bonzie Colson, perhaps battling an ankle injury he suffered in the ACC Finals, missed multiple shots as close range.
Colson seemed to re-aggravate his ankle injury when he was fouled in the paint. He would miss both free throws before heading to the bench for a brief stint, and would return minutes later.
Farrell nailed a straightaway three to break a stretch of five minutes with just two points scored to give the Irish a nine point lead. Still, the Irish could not pull away thanks to sloppy turnovers and solid defense from Princeton, who denied every Irish attack at the rim while minimizing Notre Dame’s three-point attempts.
With 8:35 left in the game, Cannady nailed a three in the corner and was fouled by Farrell. Cannady would complete the four-point play to cut the Irish lead to five.
The Irish lead shrunk to one before four straight points from Colson. Princeton responded with a bucket to pull within three, and had the ball with 20 seconds left after Farrell couldn’t connect on an elbow jumper.
Princeton missed a triple that would have tied the game, but a tip-in brought the deficit back to one with 13 seconds left. That’s when Farrell missed his free throw before being saved by Cannady’s miss on the other end.
Mike Brey is likely telling his team to put this one behind them and gear up for Saturday’s matchup with either four-seed West Virginia or 13-seed Bucknell. After all, neither first round win in Notre Dame’s last two seasons were very pretty either, but both ended in Elite Eight appearances.