CLEVELAND — Anger never had a chance to be part of Wichita State’s game against Notre Dame Thursday night.
The Shockers — with their “Play Angry” team mantra that was printed on their warmup shirts — were too consumed with panic.
Notre Dame’s 81-70 Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament basketball victory over Wichita State was the product of composure and intensity, with a pinch of raw emotion that comes with disrespect.
The Irish removed anger from the equation in the first couple minutes.
“We came out firing,” said Notre Dame guard Steve Vasturia. “We came out attacking. We threw the first punch. You’re out there playing with a lot more confidence.”
That first punch came in the form of an 18-5 lead that allowed Notre Dame to control the flow of the game.
“We dictated the tempo with that early lead,” said Irish inside presence Zach Auguste. “Then, we crushed their spirit with the run in the second half. We saw (the despair in their eyes), but we had to stay focused and finish the game.”
That second-half 23-10 spurt was enough to erase Wichita State’s only lead (38-37, with 16:40 to play in the game) and put room between Notre Dame and the Shockers.
Of course, senior Pat Connaughton had his own opinion.
“We’re Notre Dame guys,” he said. “We’re kinda good guys. I don’t think they were able to get angry at us.”
“We went out there and were having fun, passing the ball around,” said Jerian Grant, the Irish catalyst.
While kept off balance while he hit 3-of-8 shots for nine points, he still found a way to make an impact with 11 assists.
“We were playing our game,” Grant said. “When you’re having fun like that, it’s hard to stop.
“They weren’t getting the looks they usually get. We were great on their ball screens. That’s usually their game.”
Between Demetrius Jackson (20 points), Connaughton (16 points, 10 rebounds), Auguste (15 points) and Vasturia (15), the Irish ganged up on Wichita State, which was favored by two points by Las Vegas.
Notre Dame has come to relish the role of the underdog. Good thing, because it’s going to wear it again Saturday against Kentucky.
“We were underdogs (Thursday night),” said Connaughton. “We went down to the (Atlantic Coast Conference) Tournament. Nobody picked us to get out of the semifinals, let alone win it. The 13 guys in that locker room have felt that way. The 13 guys in the locker room have had a chip on their shoulder the whole year.
“You want to put us as underdogs? It gives me more fuel to give these guys to ignite the fire. It’s something we like to play with and something we pride ourselves on.
“We don’t expect to be the favorite night in and night out, but we expect to be in a position to win the game at the end of the game.”
“Everyone was overlooking us,” said Auguste. “We took that to heart. We used that as motivation. We wanted to control the game from a good lead.
“We’ve been overlooked from Day One. We want to prove the doubters wrong. That’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
“Teams still don’t respect us,” said Grant. “We’re one of the final eight teams left, and we’re going in (against the No. 6-seeded Shockers) as underdogs as a three-seed. We definitely wanted to come out there and send a message.”
“This is something we’ve been working for all year,” said Connaughton. “We’ve developed the mantra ‘Here we come.’ That was used throughout the year, but it was really for these games; the games where you get down to the competition where you can set yourselves apart from a lot of teams in the country.”
Don’t look now, but the Irish have set themselves apart. They’re one game away from a historic run and a monumental victory.
This is their opportunity for a “moment” that can last forever.
Respect would never be an issue again.