After New Mexico guard Dairese Gray sunk a pair of free throws to knot the game at 68 apiece with just under eight seconds left, Jackson took control of the game, and sent the Irish into the next round of the NIT. The junior point guard took the inbounds pass coast-to-coast and found himself in the paint when he leaped in the air, and seemed to hang suspended just long enough to bank in the game-winning layup and put the Irish up for good, 70-68.
"[Luke Haran]gody almost got run over," Mike Brey joked after Jackson charged through the lane.
Jackson didn't find it all too difficult to get the shot off. After all, he claimed that he goes up against Zach Hillesland and Harangody in practice all the time.
"I practice that all the time against Zach in practice, these two guys themselves," Jackson said pointing to Hillesland and Harangody. "It was a tough shot; they did defend me pretty well. I'm still shocked, I'm still speechless."
Hillesland had a great angle of the play, and marveled later at his teammate's athletic ability.
"Tory is kind of a — at least in terms of his athletic skill set — he's more of a cornerback than a point guard. I think if you go back and watch that play, I had a pretty good look at it, he jumped at the same time as the other guys did, he just hung longer and was able to get a shot off. And yes, I do have to say that he does that against us sometimes."
Immediately after the final buzzer sounded, Jackson ran over to the Notre Dame bench and stood on a chair to celebrate with his brothers, who frequent the junior's games often.
"They're ridiculous," Jackson said of his animated brothers. "I love them though, I love them a lot. Just seeing them here, supporting me is a great big help. They're always on me, coaching me, but I try not to listen to them too much. Sometimes they can say the wrong things because they really haven't played ball in a long time. They've been gaining weight, but I still love them."
Jackson finished with 16 points and six rebounds Thursday night.
CLOSING DOWN THE JACC?: For potentially the last time in their careers, Notre Dame seniors Kyle McAlarney, Ryan Ayers, Hillesland and Luke Zeller laced up their shoes and faced another squad on the floor of the Joyce Center. Thursday night's 70- second round victory over New Mexico could mark the last time this group of seniors will have played an official contest in the building.
With the way the NIT works, if Kentucky can beat Creighton Monday night, Notre Dame will host the Wildcats next Wednesday. However, if the Bluejays end up victorious, the Irish will travel to Omaha, Neb. for the quarterfinal matchup. If this is in fact the last game these seniors will play at the Joyce Center, Hillesland will remember it as one of the best he has had.
"It's probably one of the most fun games we've played in my four years," he said. "We felt pretty good in the first half, and we had a little lead like Tory said, and then they started making three's to make it interesting. When you're down six with a couple of minutes to go, you kind of have to zone in and a lot of guys stepped up and made big plays. If this is the last game I've played, it's a good way to go out."
HILLESLAND STARTS, KNEE FEELS FINE: After an awkward landing against the University of Alabama at Birmingham Tuesday, Hillesland was diagnosed with a hyperextended knee. Later in the game against the Blazers, the senior returned wearing a knee brace, but spent the majority of the remainder of the contest on the bench resting the injury. Thursday night, Hillesland got the starting nod, but came out with 16:25 left in the half, as Tyrone Nash replaced him. In the first period, both Hillesland and Nash each played 10 minutes, but the senior eclipsed his season average of 23.8 minutes per game against the Lobos, playing 25 total minutes.
As the game wore on and the contest still in question, Brey had confidence in his senior and kept him on the floor for the majority of the clutch moments. Hillesland was instrumental on defense, specifically, picking up key rebounds when the Irish needed him to. Prior to the game, Hillesland knew there was no way he was staying out of this contest.
"It feels good now," Hillesland joked, moments after Jackson's game winner. "It's just one of those things where it doesn't feel so good when you're walking around all day. But when it gets up to game time, there wasn't any chance I wasn't going to play. Once I got out there, the knee brace was kind of cumbersome, so I took that off I felt pretty good and the adrenaline was pumping so we got a couple of days here to rest and I'll probably be back to 100-percent Wednesday."
CROWD FEW IN NUMBERS AGAIN: For the second-consecutive time, the attendance for Notre Dame's NIT home game was paltry, relative to its regular numbers during league play. Tuesday against UAB, there were 2,039 people present to see the Irish play; Thursday night, the number was slightly larger, with a total mark of 3,013. Coach Brey sent out an e-mail to the entire student body before both home NIT contests with the message that the first thousand student to arrive at the Joyce Center would receive free tickets. Despite the meager numbers, however, Brey and the rest of his squad felt that the audience provided some energetic support. With New Mexico clinging to a modest lead and time in the contest winding down, those who did show up decided to make their voices heard, eventually giving the squad several standing, culminating with the roar of Jackson's game-winner.
"It did," Luke Harangody said when asked if the atmosphere felt like an NCAA Tournament game. "A lot of people probably don't realize this about the NIT, that it could be exactly like that. I had a blast out there. The crowd was into it. It was loud out there. It came down to a great shot, and thanks to Tory, we're moving on."
COMING HOME: If you happen to mention the name Steve Alford in the Hoosier state, chances are, a handful of people will recognize the name, and think back to the late 1980's. New Mexico's head coach played high-school basketball for New Castle Chrysler High School in New Castle, Ind. and earned the title of Indiana's Mr. Basketball after averaging 37.7 points in 1983 for the Trojans. Alford went on to play for the Indiana Hoosiers and achieved an illustrious, All-American career while under legendary head coach, Bobby Knight. Alford went on to become the school's all-time leading scorer with 2,438 points and was the first Hoosier to be named the team MVP four times. Although he returned to his home state to face the Irish, he hasn't really thought about coming home, but anticipates that his induction into the College Basketball Hall of Fame next week will be meaningful.
"It may be more emotional for me next week," Alford said. "When I get the great honor of going into the Hall of Fame next week. Getting back to an area where I'm from in Indiana. I've got a lot of friends from New Castle and that area. … It was good to see some of those people come back and get a chance to see us play, but to be honest with you, as a coach, you don't think of what state you're in. You try to prepare for the team you're playing."
For New Mexico starting point guard, Dairese Gary, Thursday night's contest against the Irish served as a homecoming as well. The sophomore was Alford's first signee as the head coach of the Lobos, and hails from Concord High School in Elkhart, Ind., where he was a two-sport standout in basketball and football. Apparently, Gary's followers travel well too. During pre-game introductions, Irish fans appropriately booed all of the Lobos' starters, except for one — Gary. The point guard received a decent amount of applause and cheers once his name was called. This season, Gary has been the only Lobos player to start every contest this season, and Thursday night earned his 62nd-consecutive start. Gregory and Denise Gary, Dairese's parents were both in attendance to see their son compete against the Irish. Gary finished with 15 points and four assists.
"It felt great to come back home and see all of my family members," Gray said. "I don't have a lot of family that get out to New Mexico to see me play. Most of them just try to catch it on TV if they can. … It felt really good. As soon as our game against Nebraska got over, my phone kept going off. It felt really good to hear familiar voices telling me they couldn't wait to see me play."