Notre Dame got its upset game out of the way without being upset. That’s one way to build another NCAA Tournament run.
The Fighting Irish beat Princeton 60-58 to open March Madness on Thursday in Buffalo, and they did it despite shooting poorly and getting flustered at times. They nearly blew a second-half 11-point lead. They even had moments where, in a rarity of Mike Brey-coached teams, they lost their composure. Good thing they played some defense.
All the elements were there for the upset, even a late missed free throw by Matt Farrell that allowed Princeton to take a potential game-winning shot.
And Notre Dame still walked away, and moved on. The Irish will play West Virginia, a first-round winner over Bucknell, on Saturday.
A week from now, if the Irish are in the Sweet 16, the aesthetics of their first-round win won’t matter at all. Rare is the Elite Eight team, and especially the Final Four team, that doesn’t have a tourney scare on its resume on the way there.
“We've had an unbelievable run in close games,” Brey said in the postgame news conference. “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, and I think in this tournament, this nucleus of guys, just feel like as this thing was getting close, well, that's what we did all last year. We just stole wins to get to the Elite Eight.”
Brey thought back to another close call.
“And it's very similar to two years ago, the Northeastern game, you know?” Brey said. “A tough one, you escape, and maybe can get on a run. Our guys really believe that, because they've experienced it, which is huge.”
Brey told CBS right after the game that his team had difficulty getting in an offensive rhythm, and that might be an understatement.
Two of Notre Dame’s best shooters – Fort Wayne’s V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia, both seniors – couldn’t find much of any rhythm at all. Beachem was 1-for-9 from the field, missing all three of his three-pointers. Vasturia was 3-for-12. That’s a combined 4-for-21 (19 percent) from a pair of players who both shoot better than 43 percent from the field.
Notre Dame had issues at the free-throw line, too, hitting 14 of 21 (66.7 percent), well below its season success rate of 79.9 percent.
The Irish committed only six turnovers, one of the more surprising numbers to look back on, but there was one late by Farrell that showed a rare glimpse of lost composure. Notre Dame led 52-45 and was trying to reestablish control when Farrell threw a wild cross-court pass that sailed out of bounds. Rarely do we see Brey get upset at a specific player, but cameras caught him in the subsequent TV timeout expressing what he thought of Farrell’s careless pass. He didn’t think much of it.
Still, Brey knows when to push and when to back off and regroup. He calmed his players down, and while the storm continued to rage, Notre Dame made just enough plays – and Princeton not quite enough – to escape with the win.
After Princeton cut the Notre Dame lead to 55-54 on a Steven Cook three-pointer with 3:22 left, Notre Dame worked to get the ball to Bonzie Colson inside. He came up big twice: on a short basket to make it 57-54 with 2:08 left, and with two free throws to make it 59-54 with 1:10 left. Those two free throws were especially huge, since Colson had made only 4-of-8 from the line at that point. Colson led Notre Dame with 18 points. Farrell scored 16.
Still, Princeton had a final chance when Farrell missed a free throw with Notre Dame ahead by a point with 11 seconds left. Princeton’s Devin Cannady, who grew up in Mishawaka and was a Mishawaka Marian teammate of former Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson, missed a three-pointer with seven seconds left. Vasturia pulled down the rebound, hit a free throw and Notre Dame escaped.
“I'm thrilled about our defense to keep them under 40 percent and really guard the arc,” Brey said. “I think they're 8 for 31. That's how we were going to escape and we did escape.”
Spencer Weisz led Princeton with 15 points. Cannady, one of their leading scorers, was 2-of-10 from three-point range and finished with seven points.
The win was nearly the opposite of a dominating performance for Notre Dame. The Irish committed nearly every type of mistake that can lead to a first-round upset win, particularly in a No. 5 seed vs. No. 12 seed matchup.
They made all the mistakes, but they won.
“We’re thrilled to survive,” Brey said.
With upset performance out of the way, Notre Dame can now get down to the business of seeking another Sweet 16 appearance.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.