PITTSBURGH -- It was now or go home, forever regretting that one of the great teams/stories in Notre Dame basketball history would end after just one victory in the NCAA tournament, a fate too familiar in the program’s history.
It was well after midnight in the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, and with the score tied at 55, Butler possessed the basketball with a chance to end it in regulation.
The Irish had committed three turnovers in the final two minutes, including a double-dribble call against Zach Auguste with 2.0 seconds remaining that gave the Bulldogs the basketball just to the side of their basket.
The inbounds pass made it to Butler’s best shooter – Kellen Dunham – who for a brief second appeared to have a clean look from three-point range. Bouncy Irish senior/captain Pat Connaughton came swooping in, swatting Dunham’s shot into the tuba section.
The referees put 0.6 seconds back on the clock, and an alley-oop pass to another bouncy athlete – Butler’s Kameron Woods – narrowly missed at the buzzer.
Overtime belonged to Notre Dame. Steve Vasturia put the Irish in front six seconds into the extra session with a pair of free throws. Connaughton broke the tie for good with a three-pointer at 3:08. Vasturia nailed another corner three with 1:21 left to give Notre Dame a three-point lead, and Jerian Grant’s driving bucket as the shot clock expired ultimately nailed down the 67-64 victory.
By virtue of its victory over Kansas a day later, Wichita State will take on the Fighting Irish in Cleveland this Thursday night at 7:15 ET.
That’s now 31 victories for Notre Dame, including seven in a row after a sweep through the ACC tournament the previous week that included a David-like conquest of college basketball Goliaths Duke and North Carolina.
How does this team keep doing it?
“One of the mottos that I try to live by, as my father always said, is winners win,” said Connaughton, who finished with a career-high five blocked shots in the victory over Butler.
“At the end of the day, when it comes time to win the ball game, I want to be there to make the plays and help my team win.”
That competitiveness pervades a Notre Dame basketball team that will have to take it several notches higher to survive another weekend, first against the upstart Shockers, who made it to the Final Four under Gregg Marshall two years ago, and then – in all likelihood – the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats.
“A killer, what a winner,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey of Connaughton. “He is the cruelest of competitors. Nice guy off the court, but he will cut your heart out on it. He’s set a great tone for us.”
Earlier in the day, Brey had learned through his younger brother, Shane, that their mother, Betty Brey, 84, had suffered a heart attack and passed away in Orlando, where she and Brey’s father, Paul, resided.
Brey informed Notre Dame athletic directors Jack Swarbrick and Jim Fraleigh of his mother’s passing earlier in the day. It seemed a bit unusual how subdued the Notre Dame locker room was when the media was allowed in 20 minutes after the game. The players had just found out.
The victory and the sad news only made the players more determined to keep the run going for Brey, particularly considering how difficult it’s been for their head coach to string together any kind of success in the NCAA tournament.
“He’s a great coach,” Grant said. “People don’t see that because he’s struggled in the NCAA tournament, but now that we’re here, we can make this even more special.”
In typical self-deprecating fashion, Brey tried to deflect attention from himself.
“I’m just so happy for this group and to do it fearlessly again like they’ve done all year,” Brey said. “That was the script of the season. I’m sure our fan base and every sports bar in South Bend was like, ‘Oh my God!’
“We were down six, and during the timeout I said, ‘This is like last Saturday night (against North Carolina). No big deal. Let’s guard our way out of it.’ That’s what we did, and then we started driving.”
All week, Brey had been curt when asked about the drain of NCAA failures on him. He had won just two NCAA tournament games in the previous 11 seasons, including four first-game losses.
He admitted after Saturday’s victory that his motivation remains strong.
“It’s the one thing that drives me in the off-season,” Brey said. “It’s great that we’ve gotten back to this territory. We’d like to go further.”
Can they go beyond Wichita State and Kentucky?
“Jerian and Pat have set a great tone keeping us hungry,” Brey said. “I am so thrilled I get to coach this team for another week at least. They’re so fun to be around, they’re energizing.
“When you put together an ACC championship and a Sweet 16 run now, it’s extremely powerful, one of the best years in the history of our program. We should head to Cleveland really confident.”
Nearly an hour after the victory, Brey talked about his mother, who once held the world record in the butterfly and competed with the U.S. swim team at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
“An amazing woman,” Brey said. “She was the one that got me going. Ahead of her time. Amazingly competitive.
“Everybody talks about Mike Krzyzewski and Morgan Wootten, absolutely, those guys were great,” said Brey of his two significant basketball influences. “But my parents were educators. When I run into people that played for them, everybody loved them.
“I’ve taken a big page out of that. You want your guys to feel good about you, and that’s a tricky thing to balance. But it was amazingly powerful to be around my parents and watch them teach and coach and interact since I was five or six years old.”
Mike Brey’s influence won’t be forgotten any time soon, either, particularly for Connaughton, who came to Notre Dame on a basketball scholarship, but was allowed to play baseball, which has led him to a professional career.
“We want to do (more) for Coach Brey,” Connaughton said. “So many people claim he doesn’t have the ability to do it in the post-season.
“That right there was reason enough to come back and do it after all he’s done for me.”