PHILADELPHIA – They knew it was looking ugly.
Just as long as it got the job done over the course of 40 minutes.
“They believe,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, sitting in the Wells Fargo Center hallways with an icepack on the right calf muscle he pulled in the second half. “It’s almost in our DNA to believe.”
Trailing for all but 24 seconds of the last 17-and-a-half minutes of the first half, and down for most of the second, Notre Dame (24-11) exchanged body blows with Wisconsin over the final 20 minutes before scoring the final eight points over the last 26 seconds to claim a 61-56 victory to advance to the Elite 8 for the second year in a row. There, Notre Dame will face North Carolina for a third time this season. Tipoff is set for 8:49 p.m.
“I told the guys Monday or Tuesday, we’re rated 16th in the power ratings of the (Sweet 16),” Brey said. “But I said, ‘We’re the toughest team. We’re by far the toughest team left mentally.’”
Notre Dame’s intestinal fortitude led to 17 Wisconsin turnovers while limiting the Badgers (22-13) to 40.4 percent shooting for the game. One of those turnovers led directly to the lead with less than 15 seconds remaining, an advantage the Irish would build upon over the final seconds.
“Just digging in, just trying to find a way to win,” said Demetrius Jackson, whose woeful shooting night (6-of-18) was replaced by a driving basket with 19.3 seconds remaining, a score off a steal with 14.4 seconds, and then a pair of free throws with less than a second left to turn a 56-53 deficit into a mad celebration.
“We just kept believing the whole time,” said V.J. Beachem, who remained hot in the post-season with a game-high 19 points.
“Right now, he’s the most outstanding player in the East Regional,” said Brey of Beachem, who is averaging 17.3 points per game. “He had a tough March last year, and he headed into the ACC and NCAA tournaments wanting to redeem himself.
“Right now, he’s a very confident guy. No one in this tournament is playing better than V.J. Beachem.”
It was not a typical night for Zach Auguste, who entered the game threatening to break a more than four-decade-old NCAA tournament field-goal shooting record set by the legendary Bill Walton.
Auguste made just 4-of-9 and struggled all night around the bucket against Wisconsin’s sticky interior defense. But when all was said and done, Auguste finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds, including a crucial 5-of-6 from the free-throw line – two of which came with 46.5 seconds remaining on a one-and-one with the Irish trailing by two.
After Vitto Brown nailed a three-pointer, the game belonged to the Irish and particularly Jackson, whose trap with Bonzie Colson created the turnover that led to Jackson’s bucket and the go-ahead score.
“It was a great defensive play by Bonzie,” Jackson said. “The ball just came to me, so I had an easy layup on that one. Then, at the end of the game, coach did a great job of letting us know we had a foul to give. I just wanted to be aggressive defensively.”
“It was coming,” said Brey of Jackson’s late-game explosion. “You just ride with him, and there’s where he’s grown as a player. He’s patient, he didn’t force anything, and he didn’t get frustrated. He knew eventually he’d be able to get in there and make plays, and man did he take over.”
For the second straight game, the Irish held their opponent scoreless down the stretch. Stephen F. Austin led by five with two-and-half-minutes to go and the Irish scored the final six points.
The Cardiac Kids did it again.
“We’ve really been able to rely on our defense late this whole post-season,” Jackson said. “We’ve done a great job executing and getting defensive stops when we had to.”
Brey, hobbling around with that damaged right calf, remained calm amidst the turmoil of the waning moments.
“I said, ‘Fellas, we’re down five with three-and-a-half…We were down five with two-and-a-half on Sunday!’” Brey said.
After shooting just 24.1 percent from the field in the first half, it was only a matter of time before Notre Dame’s shots started falling. The Irish were just missing bunnies while it was clear that Wisconsin’s offensive flow was no match for Notre Dame’s.
Notre Dame shot 57.7 percent from the field in the second half, converting 15-of-26 shots. The Irish also finished 13-of-14 from the free-throw line.
“It’s so neat for this group because they wanted to get back to it,” Brey said. “They’ve done it with expectations. Last year’s team could just kind of play. That’s why I’m most proud of how they’ve handled expectations to get back to a regional final.”
Brey vowed he’d be ready to go Sunday night when the Irish play for the regional championship for the second year in a row.
“My status is I will still be starting Sunday,” Brey joked.
Once again, his Irish were finishing.