CLEVELAND — Hands on his hips and gold jersey untucked, Notre Dame sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson took a deep breath, stared into the arena stands and waited until summoned him to have a postgame courtside say.
The Quicken Loans Arena horn had recently sounded on yet another Notre Dame postseason win, this one a whole lot bigger than everything the Irish have done the last two weeks. But when it was over, and No. 3 seed Notre Dame moved to 32-5 with a convincing 81-70 victory over No. 7 Wichita State, Jackson let seemingly everyone else — his senior teammates, his head coach — speak first.
Only then did Jackson step in and talk about what had all transpired, even though he was a key reason — maybe the reason — why this dream run is still very much a reality.
At a time in the second half of Thursday’s Midwest Regional semifinal when someone needed to step in and be the best player on the floor, it was the Mishawaka native and former McDonald’s All-American who was unafraid of the moment.
“He was in attack mode tonight,” said sophomore guard Steve Vasturia. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence.”
Jackson took the ball, ran with it and forced the rest of the Irish to follow his lead. As a result, Notre Dame is headed to its first Elite Eight since 1979, nearly two decades before anyone on this current roster was even born. The Irish stretched their magical win streak to eight and sit one more away from its first Final Four since 1978.
Jackson made seven of 10 shots from the field and scored a team-high 20 points as the Irish rode the wave of some ridiculous shooting — 75 percent from the field (18-of-24) and from 3 (6-of-8) in the second half — to make a close game decidedly one-sided.
“Just picking and choosing my spots, just stepping up and shooting it with confidence,” Jackson said of his second half. “When everybody’s stepping up, knocking their shot in, kind of going for it, it’s a really fun way to play.”
Now standing in Notre Dame’s way is big, bad Kentucky, the tournament’s top seed and lone remaining undefeated.
“Right now, we’re just worried about our game,” Vasturia said of the matchup. “We’re excited to have the challenge. We’re going to come in, play our game and see what happens.”
Saturday's Midwest Regional final will tip at 8:49 p.m.
Mike Brey likes to refer his team’s offensive outbursts as lightning strikes, something that Notre Dame devastated North Carolina with less than two weeks earlier to capture the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship. When that happened, Brey wondered if Tar Heels coach Roy Williams even realized what all had transpired that night in Greensboro.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall likely can relate. One minute, his team was seemingly on a collision rematch course with Kentucky and the chance to go to Luca Oil Stadium and the Final Four. The next, the Shockers’ season was shockingly over at 30-5. What Notre Dame did in the doubleheader opener left many in the Q asking the same question — did that really happen?
This was lightning and thunder and a whole of lot of made shots raining down from everywhere in Northeast Ohio.
“Man, just another test of our resiliency,” said Irish power forward Zach Auguste, who delivered 15 points and six rebounds. “We just stuck together. We did what we had to do. We played well together and just stayed tight on defense.”
A 6-0 run allowed Wichita State to turn a five-point deficit into its first lead, 38-37, with 16:38 remaining. Everything seemed to be going the Shockers’ way. They were getting stops. They were making it tough for the Irish to do much of anything. They were making shots.
One timeout changed everything.
“We’re just a confident team,” Auguste said.
Brey burned a break to get everything settled down, but the Irish settled in. To them, this was just another game they had been in this season. They were down. They seemed to be laboring. But they also know that they were going to get everything figured out.
They figured it out.
“That timeout really helped us,” Jackson said. “We just went out, executed, started playing, starting rebounding and started getting out and running.”
Jackson was one of the Irish who had a say in the huddle. He was confident, composed and relatively speaking, calm as he addressed his teammates, most of whom returned knowing nods.
“I was kind of like, ‘Let’s go guys,’” Jackson said. “We’ve got really smart players and everybody knows what they can do individually to help the group collectively.”
Everybody brought a little something to the effort. Jackson returned out of the timeout and delivered two big 3-pointers to push the Irish up by five. Vasturia added a 3 of his own. Jerian Grant broke loose for his first basket on a drive and left-handed finish.
In less than five minutes, Notre Dame had scored 21 points. But the Irish weren’t done. It was Connaughton on a flip through the lane, Auguste on a drop shot, Grant on a 3. Two more buckets from Auguste. And when Connaughton connected on a wing 3, the Irish had gone for 33 points in just over 10 minutes against a Wichita State team that has built its success in recent seasons on defense.
From the 16:38 mark of the second half to the 6:19 mark, Notre Dame turned a one-point deficit into a 14-point lead following a big-time Connaughton wing 3. But the Irish weren’t done. Vasturia dropped in another 3 in a late-clock situation to push the lead to 17. And when Jackson connected on two free throws, it went to 19.
Game effectively over.
“Tremendous, tremendous team,” Marshall said of Notre Dame. “The best offensive team we’ve seen all year.”
Fred VanVleet scored a game-high 25 points for the Shockers.
“They just shot layup after layup,” VanVleet said of the Irish outburst.
As impressive as it was — and it was really impressive — it was seemingly all in a night’s work for the Irish, who’ve seen and done it all before.
“We have the ability to go off at any point in time,” Connaughton said. “The biggest thing for us was we got it started on the defensive end. The things that really spark it, they’re started on the defensive end.”
Notre Dame limited Wichita State to 43.2 percent shooting from the field, 11.1 percent (1-of-9) from 3 in the second half.
The guarding Irish did it again. Now they have a chance to make some serious history. Again.
“I wasn’t born the last time Notre Dame did this,” said Grant. “It definitely means something that we’re doing something special.
“We’re one game away. One game and we’re there.”