ND Breathes Big Sigh Of Relief

ND doesn’t make it to Saturday against the winner of West Virginia-Bucknell if not for a defensive effort that limited Princeton to 8-of-31 three-point shooting.

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Like a scene from a movie – the basketball in the air, suspended in time, an arena full of held breaths – Devin Cannady’s story to be told for years to come faded away just as quickly as the scenario unfolded.

“Man…man…it looked good,” said Notre Dame’s V.J. Beachem. “I was right under the rim. It looked good. I’m just glad it came off.”

Beachem -- Cannady’s best remaining friend on the Notre Dame team as the high school teammate of former Irish guard Demetrius Jackson – was one of an entire throng from the Notre Dame traveling party breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Cannady’s missed long-range jumper, Steve Vasturia’s rebound and the first of two free throws were enough for No. 5 seed Notre Dame (26-9) to survive No. 12 seed Princeton, 60-58, in the opening game of the NCAA tournament at the KeyBank Center Thursday afternoon.

“It’s March…that’s all you have to say,” said Matt Farrell, who finished with 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting, but missed a short jumper with 24 seconds left and the front end of a one-and-one with 10.6 seconds remaining. “He’s a shooter and they’re all shooters. It’s March and anything can happen. We defended well enough to come out of here with a W.

“We’re not going to harp on the bad things we do. We’re going to try to fix ‘em and get ready for (Saturday).”

The Irish have plenty to fix, much of which perhaps can be rectified by simply having a game under their belts. The first game of the first day of the NCAA tournament is a dangerous proposition for all who face it.

So, too, is a team like Mitch Henderson’s Princeton squad, which made Notre Dame uncomfortable on the offensive end by pushing them off the three-point line, and by launching a barrage of three-pointers that, fortunately for the Irish, missed their mark 74.2 percent of the time.

“To force them into 8-for-31 is a heckuva job by us,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “It’s probably why we won the game.

“We had to win it playing defense because we weren’t in a great flow offensively. Some guys didn’t shoot it was well as they’d like, but we continued to guard. That’s where we’re mature. When we’re not scoring, it doesn’t affect us on the defensive end.”

Notre Dame shot nearly 47 percent in the first half to take a six-point halftime lead. But it became progressively more difficult from there as the Irish scored just 24 second-half points, made seven field goals, and even shot an uncharacteristic 66.7 percent from the free-throw line.

The four three-pointers made was Notre Dame’s third lowest output of the season while the 11 attempts were a season-low.

“We play similar to them, and that’s what we try to do,” said Steve Vasturia of Notre Dame’s limited three-point attempts.

“We try to make them shoot tough shots that aren’t threes, and you give them credit for that. At the end of the day, we made as many plays as we needed to.”

Notre Dame’s three-point defense was equally impressive.

“They made some open ones, but we kept them under 30 percent from three,” Vasturia said. “If you do that, you’re usually going to come out with a win, especially against a team that shoots so many.

“That was the goal. We wanted to make it hard for them and I think we did that.”

Nothing was harder than the pill the Tigers had to swallow. They held Beachem to 1-of-9 field-goal shooting. They held Vasturia to 3-of-12. They held their own on the backboards, finishing just three (36-to-33) behind the Irish.

“I thought the shot was going in,” said a dejected Cannady, who made just 2-of-11 field-goal attempts, including 2-of-10 from three-point range.

“I got my feet set and the ball came in my shot-pocket. I looked at the rim and when the ball left my hand, I thought it was good. It didn’t go in and that’s what happens when you take those shots. It either does or doesn’t. In this case, it didn’t and the rest is…”

Henderson’s coaching perspective went beyond the final shot.

“We tried to get to the rim, but Notre Dame is smart and tough,” said Henderson, whose team took more three-point attempts (31) than two-point tries (26).

“They don’t put anybody on the floor that doesn’t have a ton of experience. I thought that was the story of the game. They had a lot more experience in this moment and it showed.”

Also showing were 1) Bonzie Colson’s apprehension following a twisted ankle five days earlier and 2) his ability to will the Irish to victory.

Colson struggled with the flow of the game, prompting Brey to pull him from the lineup early in each half. He still managed to finish with a game-high 18 points on 6-of-13 shooting and seven rebounds in 31 minutes.

His final points – a basket with 2:06 remaining and a pair of free throws with 1:10 left – proved to be all the Irish needed…on the offensive end.

“Sometimes you have to let the game come to you and be patient and stay locked in,” Colson said. “A lot of guys kept telling me to stay ready. Coach (Ryan) Humphrey was in my ear, keeping me motivated, telling me to be patient.”

When Farrell wasn’t carrying the Irish, Colson was, particularly with the game on the line.

“He’s certainly the difference,” said Brey of Colson. “We were able to post him more. We don’t do that as much against ACC teams. But we were just throwing the darn thing in there.

“It looked like the (Luke) Harangody days. Just chuck it in there and see what happens.”

Not quite like the Harangody days. During the days of Notre Dame’s second all-time leading scorer, the Irish played just four NCAA tournament games, losing three.

These Irish survive and advance, just as they did last year against Michigan and the year before that against Northeastern.

“We’ve had an unbelievable run in close games,” Brey said. “I think we’re 18-3 in our last 21 overtime games. That shouldn’t happen (with) the law of averages.

“But we’ve been in so many of them, we really believe. That’s what we did all last year and two years ago against Northeastern. We just stole wins to get to the Elite Eight.”

Larceny lives on.

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