BUFFALO, N.Y. – Panic is for those less prepared.
Panic is for those who succumb to the madness that is March basketball.
Panic has no place with the current Notre Dame men’s basketball program. The Irish battle through the adversity, survive and advance.
That’s what Notre Dame did Thursday afternoon in the always-precarious first game of the first day of the NCAA tournament where many a favorite has been bounced before breakfast has had a chance to settle in their stomachs.
“We’ve had an unbelievable run in close games,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey following Notre Dame’s 60-58 victory over No. 12 seed Princeton to advance to Saturday’s 12:10 p.m. ET tipoff with No. 3-seed West Virginia at the KeyBank Center.
“I think we’re 18-3 in our last 21 overtime games. That shouldn’t happen. The law of averages…But we’ve been in so many of them, we really believe. In this tournament, this nucleus of guys feels like as this thing gets close, well, that’s what we did all last year. We just stole wins to get to the Elite Eight.”
In the last three NCAA tournaments, Notre Dame has a 7-2 record. The seven victories have come by:
• four over Northeastern to start the first Elite Eight run in 2015;
• three over Butler in overtime;
• 11 over Wichita State to advance to the first Elite Eight;
• seven over Michigan (after trailing by 12 at halftime) to launch another Elite Eight run;
• one over Stephen F. Austin;
• five over Wisconsin to advance to Elite Eight II
• two over Princeton.
“Hopefully what we’re doing as a program is making this routine,” said sophomore Rex Pflueger, who took a blow just below his left hairline six-and-a-half minutes into the Princeton game, which required six stitches.
“We’re trying to teach our players composure during stressful times. In end of game situations, our veterans have done a great job of that.”
Nobody is cooler under pressure than senior Steve Vasturia, who has had plenty to fret about with a jump shot that continues to go south as his collegiate career winds down.
Vasturia converted just 3-of-12 from the field versus the Tigers after reviving his shot in the ACC tournament. The Irish veteran compensated in other ways against the Tigers, grabbing a game-high eight rebounds, including the last one of the game for the Irish after Princeton’s Devin Cannady missed the potential game-winning shot.
“We were tough,” Vasturia said. “It’s not going to be pretty all the time, especially in the NCAA tournament. Not every game is going to be knocking down every shot.
“Every team you play is good and we got a win. That’s something that can really jump-start us.”
It was a rough night for fellow senior V.J. Beachem, who showed anxiety on the court before the game and then took it into live action. He made just 1-of-9 shots and missed all three of his three-point attempts, although he helped on the glass with six rebounds.
“Other teams would have panicked and might have gotten upset,” said Beachem, who scored just two points – his lowest output of the season.
“But we’ve been through so much the last few years, just staying poised at that time is huge.”
Even veteran Bonzie Colson needed a reminder to maintain his poise after Brey pulled him from the game early in the first half with a not-so-gentle reminder to “wake the (blank) up!”
“Sometimes you have to let the game come to you and be patient and stay locked in,” Colson said.
Matt Farrell’s perspective was more along the lines of Brey’s. Sometimes poise needs a bit of a jump-start from some poison.
“That’s the relationship we’ve developed over the last three years where we can get on each other, and I did,” Farrell said. “I got on (Colson) right away and he responded.
“That’s what we need to do for each other. We have to be accountable for one another and take it the right way. I’m going to keep doing that to lead this team, and they need to do the same thing for me.”
STAYING PRETTY…AND TOUGH
USA Today Sports Images
At first, Rex Pflueger was a little confused. Then concerned. Then amused.
It was the 13:32 mark of the first half when the Irish sophomore took a blow just below his left hairline. His skin opened up, and so did the flow of blood from his forehead.
Lots and lots of blood.
Irish trainer Skip Meyer reacted immediately, tending to Pflueger and accompanying him to the locker room on the opposite end of the KeyBank Center.
Six stitches and a whole lot of lost blood later, Pflueger returned and made an impact to close out the first half, scoring on a short-corner jumper with 2:01 left and a driving basket with 18.6 seconds to give the Irish a six-point halftime lead.
“I actually said to my staff, ‘Is he (all) right?’” Brey said. “Is he giving us anything? Then he hit the baseline jump shot and I turned and said, ‘I guess he’s okay.”
Pflueger finished with modest numbers: four points, two rebounds and one turnover in 28 minutes of action. But it was his work on the defensive end that consistently prevented penetration to the basket, forcing Princeton to kick it back outside where they were just 8-of-31 from three-point range.
“He really defends,” Brey said. “His attention to detail – chasing shooters off the arc…he’s fabulous about that.”
Pflueger has a great feel for the moment and clearly has joined the upperclassmen in leadership and accountability.
“We knew they were a capable three-point shooting team,” said Pflueger of Princeton. “We knew they had a very tough, experienced team, so they wouldn’t go away at any point in the game. We withstood all their runs, all their toughness, and I think we matched it.
“In this tournament, magic happens, madness happens. You’ve just got to be prepared for everything.”
After Pflueger’s steal and reverse slam dunk in the ACC tournament against Virginia, Brey referred to him as “Hollywood” and said he could take whatever chances he’d like if he continued to play defense at that level.
Continuing along that theme, Brey joked about the medical care Pflueger received at the locker room following his injury.
“He’s a tough kid; we glued him up,” Brey said. “We would have stitched any other of our guys, but since he’s from L.A., and he’s into Hollywood, we didn’t want to mess his face up. So we glued his head up because he could be a movie star some day.”
The movies can wait; the NCAA tournament is the stage for Pflueger’s academy award performances for now.
HIS TOUGHEST CRITIC
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
Matt Farrell couldn’t believe that his pull-up jumper in the lane with 24 seconds remaining didn’t go through the hoop to give Notre Dame a five-point lead.
He was even more incredulous when with 10.6 seconds remaining and the Irish clinging to a one-point lead, he missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving Princeton one last chance to win it.
And yet when Devin Cannady launched his potential game-winning three-pointer with about three seconds left, it was Farrell who switched off the screen and provided just enough resistance to Cannady’s shot to help steer it off course.
“It’s March…that’s all you have to say,” said Farrell, who finished with 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting (3-of-5 from three) and was dying to say how angry he was with himself for not sealing the victory.
But Farrell bit his tongue, accepted the disappointment in his end-game performance, and moved on.
“We defended well enough to come out of here with a W,” Farrell said. “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 fact is while V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia were a combined 4-of-21 from the field, while Rex Pflueger was tending to his open wound, and while Bonzie Colson was veering in and out with his level of concentration, Farrell was the only consistent Notre Dame performer through the first 39 minutes.
Colson proved to be the man again, finishing with a game-high 18 points, including a basket with 2:06 remaining to give the Irish a three-point lead and a pair of free throws less than a minute later to extend the advantage to five.
But it was Farrell who played the steadiest of games for the Irish with four rebounds, four assists and two steals to go along with his 16 points in 36 minutes. He did cough up the basketball three times, but the Irish had just six miscues for the game.
Farrell scored the first basket of the game – a three-pointer 1:10 after tipoff. It was Farrell who drove to the basket and scored 16 seconds into the second half, and then scored Notre Dame’s next five points.
“The only thing that matters is that we came away with a W,” Farrell said. “We’ll fix the other stuff.”
POINTS IN THE PAINT
• Notre Dame committed just six turnovers against Princeton. It’s the team’s ninth straight game with fewer than 10 turnovers, and the 12th in the last 13. That’s an important number with the Irish taking on No. 3 seed West Virginia Saturday. The Mountaineers force an average of 20 turnovers per game.
• The senior class of Steve Vasturia, V.J. Beachem and Austin Torres has taken part in seven NCAA tournament victories, matching the program standard set by the Class of 1979 (Bruce Flowers and Bill Laimbeer) that featured non-seniors Rich Branning, Bill Hanzlik, Kelly Tripucka, Tracy Jackson and Orlando Woolridge.
• With his 10 points, Vasturia moved past Colin Falls for 22nd on the school’s all-time scoring chart with 1,389.