PHILADELPHIA — Survive and advance.
No team in the 2016 NCAA tournament has embodied that mantra more than No. 6 seed Notre Dame this season, as the Fighting Irish staged a wild second half rally for the third consecutive game, beating No. 7 Wisconsin 61-56 to advance to the program’s second consecutive Elite 8.
The Irish trailed 49-44 with 3:36 left in a game where points were at an absolute premium, but they closed the evening on a 17-7 run. The man that made the difference was star point guard Demetrius Jackson, who was having a disaster of a game until the final few minutes. He missed 10 of his first 11 shots, but made the biggest plays when it mattered the most.
He got a lucky bounce on a jumper to start the comeback, finding V.J. Beachem for yet another clutch three from Notre Dame’s best shooter in this tournament on the ensuing possession. A minute later, after a Vitto Brown three put Wisconsin ahead 56-53, he scored a driving layup to cut the lead to one with just 19 seconds left. On the next possession, he picked Nigel Hayes’ pocket, scoring the layup that ultimately won the game. After another empty Indiana possession and two Beachem free throws, Jackson again stole the ball, this time taking Bronson Koenig’s cookies.
His two free throws would give the Irish their final margin.
This win comes after Notre Dame erased a five-point Stephen F. Austin led in the final minute and a full week after they erased a 41-29 halftime deficit against Michigan. The Irish will advance to face the winner of No. 1 North Carolina and No. 5 Indiana for the right to advance to the Final Four.
“I guess that kind of sums up madness,” Jackson said.
With the way that they’ve advanced in this tournament, and considering that every other team currently in the Elite 8 is either a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed, I think we can say that the Irish are this year’s Cinderella story.
And if that’s the case, then head coach Mike Brey is this year’s Ron Hunter. Hunter, if you remember, is the head coach at Georgia State who popped his achilles celebrating his team’s in the Sun Belt tournament before famously falling off of a stool when his son, R.J., buried a three to beat No. 3 seed Baylor in the first round of the tournament. Brey injured himself early in the second half on Friday night, and while he initially thought the injury was a torn achilles, it turns out that Brey just pulled his right calf.
“Thank God it wasn’t achilles,” he told reporters after the game while hobbling around the underbelly of the Wells Fargo Center, the grin he wore far more noticeable than the bag of ice strapped to his leg. “The whole second half I was limping around. I played hurt.”
The good news for Brey? He’s listed as day-to-day and expects to be healthy for the Elite 8 on Sunday. Not only does that mean he’ll be able to coach for the right to play in the Final Four, but he won’t have to do it from a stool.
And given the way that Notre Dame has been winning games of late, that’s probably a good thing for Brey. This new look — scruffy beard , open collar, hair slicked back — already has him looking like the last guy to leave the blackjack table.
He doesn’t need to be falling stools as well. That’s the kind of March it’s been for Brey.
I’m not going to be the guy that says Notre Dame has had the Luck of the Irish.
I just won’t do it.
I’ll let Brey handle the quips instead.
“The Irish don’t lose on Good Friday or Easter Sunday.”