CLEVELAND – Mike Brey thought back to the 2014 basketball banquet, an intimate affair held on the concourse above the Purcell Pavilion basketball arena.
It was intimate because there weren’t enough people in attendance to warrant conducting it in a larger venue.
“We only had about 17 people at the banquet. I bet you’ll be there this year,” cracked Brey moments after Notre Dame’s 81-70 victory over Wichita State to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1979.
“I said at that banquet, ‘One thing about our program’s history, when we’ve been put on the mat, we come off it pretty good.’ We really came off the mat this year.”
Trailing by a point for the first time against the Shockers, Notre Dame (32-5) scored an incomparable 44 points over the last 16:01, converting 17-of-20 shots at one point and turning an otherwise nip-and-tuck game into a double-digit advantage for most of the remaining 12 minutes.
The Irish shot a sizzling 75 percent in the second half (18-of-24), including 6-of-8 three-pointers after missing the last seven shots from distance in the first half.
“Nobody plays offense like that, and when we get it into that gear, it’s really scary,” Brey said. “It’s demoralizing to have to chase us around. It helps our defense when we get that efficient offensively because the other team gets rattled and then tries to play too fast.”
Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall could speak to Brey’s characterization of the second-half avalanche.
“I’ve never seen a one-point lead get out of hand so quickly,” said Marshall, whose Shockers lost for just the sixth time in 71 games. “It did tonight because of their firepower.”
For a program that lost 17 times one year ago – going against another program that had lost 20 times…in the last four years! – the turnaround happened in a flash. And yet it was just four games earlier that the Irish went on a 24-2 run against North Carolina in the ACC championship to turn what looked like a Tar Heels blowout into Notre Dame’s first-ever conference championship.
“This is a dream come true,” said Irish point guard Demetrius Jackson, who finished with 20 points and jump-started the second-half run by scoring eight points in the first 3:59.
“These are games you watch growing up on TV. Finally, I can be a part of it. I just want to make my impact.”
Also playing an impactful role during Notre Dame’s second-half run was captain Pat Connaughton, whose three-pointer from the corner with a little more than six minutes remaining was part of a 38-18 run that turned a one-point deficit into a 19-point lead in a 10:19 span.
“It’s something every kid dreams about when you look at the way you were brought up as a basketball junkie, watching these tournament games, picking up brackets, the whole thing,” said Connaughton, who tossed in 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
“It was something you could only dream about, but to be here, you want to make the most of it. It’s something we talk about in the locker room and something not many people get to do. You’ve got to leave it all on the floor night-in and night-out.”
Continuing his strong ascent since the start of post-season was Zach Auguste, who made all six of his shots from the field to finish with 15 points and six rebounds.
“It’s just so fun,” said Auguste, who’s averaging 14.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per game over the last seven. “It’s an unreal experience to play your best and play your heart out in front of and for the people that love you.
“We wanted to go out there and step on their throat. Everybody was overlooking us and we kind of took that to heart. We used it as motivation and wanted to go out there straight from the jump.”
Auguste was one of several Irish players who heard the incessant talk of a Kentucky-Wichita State rematch from last year’s NCAA tournament. Notre Dame made sure it wasn’t meant to be.
“We use that as motivation, as fuel,” Auguste said. “We’ve been overlooked since day one, and we continue to prove the doubters wrong.”
The main focus, however, was in-house, particularly for Brey, who has given so much to his players, particularly during a trying week following his mother’s passing.
“It means a lot to this program and it means a lot for coach,” Auguste said. “We’re doing this for each other, but we’re also doing it for Coach Brey.”
Brey steered the attention away from himself and shined the spotlight on his players.
“One of the things I thought about all day was I just didn’t want it to end with this group,” Brey said. “It’s so fun and energizing to be around this group and this chemistry and this vibe. As much as we can extend, man, I’m all about that.
“We are cruel competitors. We really are, and that starts with Jerian (Grant) and Pat saying, ‘We are coming back to finish this the right way.’ They set the tone the whole way.”
Brey reflected on the timeout he called with 16:38 remaining after Darius Carter’s bucket gave the Shockers their first lead of the night. It was short-lived.
“It’s not about me, it’s about our guys,” Brey said. “I’m just so caught up in this group, how they interact with each other, and how they handle tough stuff.
“I love to listen to them the first minute of timeouts. I never go in with what I’m going to say. I listen to them first and then sometimes they let me talk.”
When Brey spoke with the media, it was still in the early stages of Kentucky’s 78-39 victory over West Virginia, establishing Saturday night’s clash with the winner advancing to the Final Four in Indianapolis.
Although the obstacle is about as harrowing as it gets, the fact is the Irish are one game away from the program’s first trip to the Final Four since 1978.
It’s a long way from 15-17 in 2013-14.
“I probably would have laughed a little bit then, too, even though I felt really good about this group,” said Brey of the notion that the Irish would bounce back from last year’s disaster and play for a Final Four bid.
“To be one game away from that is awesome, and this group deserves it. They are a really together, unselfish, play-the-right-way group. It’s good for college basketball to watch this group play.”