O'Malley's Key Three

Mike Brey's continually evolving Irish found yet another way to win at tournament time, holding off Northeastern 69-65 in Pittsburgh.

Notre Dame's unsung hero of last week's unexpected ACC Tournament run took on a different role Thursday for his squad's opening NCAA Tournament matchup.

Leading man.

After a first half waylaid by two fouls prior to the 14:30 mark, Zach Auguste dominated the second stanza, scoring 21 of his game-high 25 points in the final 20 minutes.

His final two, a pair of free throws with two seconds remaining, extended Notre Dame's tenuous lead from two points to four, effectively ending the contest.

"The clutchest free throws of his career," said team captain Pat Connaughton post-game.

And they came just one outing after what was previously Auguste's most impressive career performance, a 16-point, 13-rebound tour de force against North Carolina in the ACC Championship game.

"I just couldn't let my teammates down," said Auguste after the Irish claimed the ACC crown. "I wanted to make an impact, whether it be offensively or defensively. I let them down a couple of times early in the season (in) some big games, and I just wanted to be more consistent and be solid."

He's exceeded those expectations, and Notre Dame has a date with Butler on Saturday afternoon, because of it.

Four steals by Steve Vasturia. Two apiece by guards Demetrius Jackson and Jerian Grant including one by the latter that thwarted Northeastern's upset attempt on their final meaningful possession.

A stunning 17 points off turnovers and 14 in transition.

These are not the lead-footed Irish of NCAA failures past.

Notre Dame prevailed against a Northeastern team buoyed by early success and overflowing with confidence because it was the superior collection of athletes -- a reality not present at the program at this late stage of a season since the final days of the disco era.

Demetrius Jackson was a wizard with the basketball -- a game-high eight assists including a highlight reel 30-foot dribbling exhibition that resulted in an Auguste dunk, but only after Jackson had left a pair of defenders in his wake.

Jerian Grant added five assists, four of which resulted in a layup for Auguste who scored 19 of his 25 points on layups or dunks courtesy the Irish guards.

Notre Dame's ability to create transition opportunities and convert on the go was too much for the game Huskies to overcome.

From the season's outset it was clear Notre Dame's chief weakness would be the inability to keep foes off its backboard. As the season progressed, it appeared that malady might be the only defect attached to one of the nation's best units.

Thursday in Pittsburgh, the nation's 307th-best offensive rebounding team nearly put the Irish out of the NCAA Tournament by exploiting that flaw.

Thirteen offensive rebounds by the Huskies resulted in 11 second-chance points. Northeastern scored 28 points in the paint as the tentative Irish interior defense repeatedly committed the cardinal sin of the low block: they defended with their hands rather than their feet and chests.

Part of the problem was early foul trouble that plagued both Auguste and backup Bonzie Colson, but Notre Dame's early-season tendency to help "up" rather than across against penetration resurfaced -- the drive and dump for lightly contested layups was available to the Huskies most of the afternoon.

Notre Dame ultimately won the game because its perimeter defenders dug in defensively when it mattered, but the Irish interior will have to be much more stout for this squad to make a meaningful tournament run.

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