PITTSBURGH – Ten seconds earlier, the plan was obvious.
Steve Vasturia was set up in the right corner. Remember that corner… Remember Duke?
Jerian Grant remembered. The look in his eyes was obvious. Grant, who was on the opposite side of the court, saw Vasturia and knew what he had to do. He drove. The Butler defense collapsed. And he found Vasturia who – like Duke – drained the 3-pointer and put the Bulldogs on their ears in overtime.
The 3-pointer, with less than a minute to play in overtime, was the critical blow for Notre Dame in its 67-64 NCAA Tournament win over Butler early Sunday morning.
This was huge for Irish coach Mike Brey and his senior leaders Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant.
And for the Irish in general.
March frustration will no longer define the Notre Dame men’s basketball program.
At least ‘til the next vernal equinox.
For years, ever since 2003 in fact, Brey had been maligned for the annual spring swoon that would greet the melting snow in South Bend and start of the NCAA Tournament.
Drive for show, putt for dough. Twenty-plus wins don’t mean a thing when the games that count go haywire.
The victory over Butler was the grease that finally slid the evil monkey off the back of the Irish.
The workmanlike effort, against a Butler team more suited for hard hats and lunch pails than glass slippers and gowns, allowed Notre Dame to win its second tournament, in Brey’s postseason psychology.
First, there was the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in Greensboro. Check. Then, the “Pittsburgh Tournament.” Check. Next on tap is Cleveland. And then… Who knows?
Pretty sweet, huh?
It certainly wasn’t a gimme for the Irish. The Bulldogs scratched and clawed for every point. Each defensive stand was an adventure for the Irish. Bruised. Battered. Barely beaten.
If momentum counts for anything, Notre Dame could have an edge.
Of course, it was a victory that almost wasn’t.
Tied at 55 with 20.3 seconds on the clock in regulation and two seasons in the balance, Butler had the ball. All the Irish had was a season’s worth of having been there before. Butler’s Roosevelt Jones came up empty on an off-balance runner with about 8 seconds left. Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste rebounded and headed upcourt. With 2.0 seconds left, he was whistled for a double-dribble.
Kellen Dunham’s 3-point try was swatted out of bounds by Connaughton with 0.6 to play. That gave the Bulldogs time for a desperation heave underneath that the Irish thwarted.
Butler’s pesky point guard Alex Barlow fouled out a little over a minute into the extra period. Pat Connaughton, who missed his first five 3-point tries, connected for the first time with 3:05 to go in OT for a 62-59 Notre Dame lead.
It opened the door for Vasturia’s heroics.
Brey said Friday one of the advantages of a late tip was that “the (arena) would be sweatin’.” Actually, North Carolina State’s stunning upset of Villanova had it worked up into a lather.
Then came the first eight minutes of Notre Dame-Butler. Like a cold shower. Any hint of energy disappeared. The crowd was subdued, better suited for a golf tournament than NCAA Tournament, and the play was a bruising battle of wills that led to a 14-12 Irish lead.
Neither Butler nor Notre Dame went very deep into their bench. Each used seven players when it counted. Limiting the Bulldogs’ effectiveness was Roosevelt Jones’ bum knee. The 6-foot-4, 227-pound junior lumbered around the floor with a heavy brace on his left leg, the result of an injury that happened in Thursday’s win over Texas. Despite not being at full strength or speed, he still played all but a couple minutes and scored 23 points.
Man-for-man, it seemed the Irish enjoyed the athletic edge at every position. Once March happens, though, athleticism only counts for so much. There’s something to be said for will and desire, both of which are issued uniforms and warmups with the Butler program.
Notre Dame led by double digits with 7:47 to play in the first half. Fool’s gold. Sooner or later, the battling Bulldogs were going to make it close. And they did.
Probably the most impressive Irish effort was the defensive job Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson did on Butler leading scorer Kellen Dunham (16.8 points a game). Shut out in the first half, the 6-6 guard didn’t hit his first shot until the 15:30 mark of the second half, a 3-pointer in transition.