BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Even Mike Brey – a man who would make Job look like the nervous sort -- has a boiling point.
It came at halftime Friday night against Michigan in the Barclays Center in opening-round action of the East Regional of the NCAA tournament.
“The conversation started nice and calm and then I just started to lose it a little bit,” said the bemused head coach following Notre Dame’s 70-63 victory over the No. 11 seed Wolverines after erasing a 12-point halftime deficit.
“I love you, you’re great guys, you have done everything we’ve asked, but either you’re going to be a little tougher, or this is going to be a North Carolina game all over again.”
Brey tossed in a little sarcasm to emphasize his point.
“But everyone will pat you on the back because you’re nice guys and you get good grades,” Brey said.
Whether it transpired exactly like that is a bit dubious. Cynicism certainly was in order, as was the reference to the 31-point butt-kicking that the Tar Heels administered one week earlier in Washington, D.C.
Whatever Brey said to his troops at the intermission, it worked. The Irish came out flying around the basketball court, limiting the Wolverines (23-13) to 9-of-32 shooting from the field, including 3-of-13 from three-point range, and a mere 19 points as the Irish advanced to second-round action Sunday against No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin, an upset winner over No. 3 seed West Virginia.
The winner of Sunday’s game -- slated to begin at approximately 2:40 p.m. EDT Sunday -- advances to the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia next weekend.
“We had to start playing our (brand of) basketball and get stops,” said junior guard Steve Vasturia, who set the second-half tone within the first minute by scoring on a drive and tossing in a three-pointer to ignite the fire.
“I was just trying to increase the energy. We needed a little jump-start. That’s the way we’ve been playing all year, guys getting on the floor and getting every loose ball. Everybody was feeding off each other.”
It wasn’t like the Irish didn’t shoot well in the first half. Trailing 41-29 at the break despite shooting 59.3 percent (13-of-22), rather, it was the new norm – a rash of turnovers – that put Notre Dame in a hole as the Irish proved to be the only No. 6 seed to survive the first two days of the NCAA tournament.
Notre Dame spit it up 10 times during the first 20 minutes, giving them 45 turnovers in the previous 105 minutes of basketball that dated back to the overtime victory over Duke and the regulation-time loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament.
That led to a 14-2 Michigan scoring advantage off turnovers in the first half, and thus, the significant hole.
“The first half, we played very good defense,” said Michigan head coach John Beilein, who fell to 1-7 in his career against Brey, dating back to their Big East days when Beilein was at West Virginia.
“The second half of the game, we sort of lost that intensity that you need to play good defense. And then Notre Dame’s strategy of coming out and being much more aggressive with their man-to-man defense was the key.”
Michigan guard Derrick Walton, Jr., who scored 10 points in the first half as the Wolverines were converting 7-of-14 three-pointers, was held scoreless in the second half. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, who had 12 points at the break, made a three-pointer in the second half, and that was it.
Mark Donnal scored all nine of his points in the second half and Zak Irvin scored seven of his nine over the final 20 minutes. But by limiting the Wolverines to 28.1 percent shooting, including 23.1 percent from three-point range, it allowed the Irish to settle in on the offensive end, where Notre Dame matched Michigan’s 41-point first-half output.
“Staying focused, taking time on my jump shot, and not rushing it,” said junior swingman V.J. Beachem, who scored 13 of his game-high 18 points in the second half while making all four of his three-point attempts, including a bomb with 9:25 remaining to give Notre Dame its first lead of the night.
Beachem hit another three with 3:42 remaining to break a tie. His baseline pull-up jumper 34 seconds later gave the Irish a five-point lead and enough cushion to secure the victory.
“All of them were open shots,” Beachem said. “We had great movement, the guys found me and I was able to step up and knock them down.”
Beachem, who scored 14 points in seven post-regular season games a year ago, has now tossed in 48 points (16.0 average) in the last three games with 11 three-pointers on 17 attempts.
“I’m really proud of him,” Brey said. “A year ago, he didn’t have a very good post-season. He didn’t even play in the NCAA tournament. He really struggled.
“For him to deliver like he did in D.C and to deliver tonight when we really needed him…He’s a great kid who’s a junior that has grown and matured.”
There were plenty of heroes. Zach Auguste recorded his 20th double-double of the season with 10 points and 12 rebounds, nine and nine of which came in the first half when the Irish needed someone to offset Michigan’s fast start.
Bonzie Colson scored eight of his 12 points in the second half, finishing 4-of-5 from the field and 4-of-4 from the line, including a couple free throws with 11.1 seconds remaining to ice the game.
Demetrius Jackson, playing all 40 minutes, recorded zero turnovers in the second half and tossed in seven of his 11 points. Vasturia scored seven of his nine points after the break.
Sophomore guard Matt Farrell – making his first career start as Brey played the match-up game with Michigan’s guard-oriented attack – scored five points with four assists while helping set a scrappy tone. Freshman Rex Pflueger did his work on the defensive end against long Michigan guards such as Zak Irvin and Abdur-Rahkman.
“This is two out of three games where we’ve had 15, 16, 17 turnovers,” said Brey, whose team whittled it down to a manageable six in the second half. “We led the nation in (fewest turnovers) at nine. I asked them, ‘Can we shave it down to maybe 10 on Sunday and not throw it all over the place?’
“We only played one big guy (in the second half). It helped us defensively and it helped open the floor for some driving area and some screen-roll stuff. I have a feeling we’ll be in that on Sunday.”
The Irish will take on 28-5 Stephen F. Austin of the Southland Conference. The Lumberjacks haven’t lost since Dec. 29 – they were 18-0 in conference play -- although their most impressive victory of the season came against Western Michigan.
SFA leads the nation in turnovers forced per game at 18.6. Prior to Notre Dame’s victory over Michigan, the Lumberjacks coerced West Virginia into 22 turnovers.
“It started with taking care of the ball,” said Jackson of Notre Dame’s come-from-behind victory. “We did a better job of that in the second half. We’ve got to clean that up.”
If they don’t, the “ferocious” Brey will tend to it.