Notre Dame avoids upset with narrow win over Northeastern

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH — Embracing and executing game situations are a part of every Notre Dame men’s basketball practice plan.

The Irish work through several scenarios at the beginning, the middle and the end of every afternoon workout back in South Bend. But nothing in those moments carried as much importance as what No. 3 seed Notre Dame faced in the final frantic seconds of Thursday’s second-round game of the NCAA tournament against No. 14 Northeastern at CONSOL Energy Center.

This wasn’t just about executing a game situation and getting on to dinner or study hall. A whole lot more was on the line.

The Irish season.

The careers of seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant.

Falter in this game situation, and Notre Dame would be handed the dubious honor of being the last team standing in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament but the first team out of the NCAA tournament. But as the eighth-ranked Irish have shown this season, this is a different group. So when Notre Dame needed a stop in the closing seconds while nursing a two-point lead that minutes earlier had swelled to as many as a dozen, it was going to get it.

Said stop sent Notre Dame (30-5) to a 69-65 victory over Northeastern (23-12) and on to the third round against No. 6 seed Butler (23-10).

“The first one’s always the hardest,” Connaughton said of every team having to deal with a win-or-go-home-mentality. “Teams are going to make runs. It was a really great test for us defensively.”

“It’s tough,” Grant said of being seemingly seconds away from having played his last college game. “You have to try and make a play.”

Tip time for Saturday was not expected to be decided until early Friday morning.

Midnight almost shockingly arrived for an Irish team that looked like it had it on automatic toward their first NCAA tournament victory since 2011. Able to get its offense in gear while guarding for long possessions against a Northeastern team that borrowed a couple pages from the “burn” playbook, Notre Dame extended its lead to 12 with 6:02 remaining following a Demetrius Jackson corner 3.

But as we’ve seen with this Notre Dame team the last few months, no lead is safe. On either side of the scoreboard. Notre Dame let an 18-point halftime lead against Miami (Fla.) in the ACC tournament semifinals slip away last week before figuring it out. Two nights later, Notre Dame won the league tournament championship after erasing a nine-point deficit with 9:36 left against North Carolina.

A Northeastern run was percolating. The Huskies got back with numerous second and sometimes third chances off missed shots.

“As crazy and chaotic as that whole situation was,” said Irish coach Mike Brey, “this group has shown when they’ve really needed to get a defensive stop, they’ve done it. More than any group I’ve ever had, they’ve been able to get a stop.”

They did it again.

Northeastern big man Scott Eatherton brought plenty of life to the building when his lay-in brought the Huskies within two, 67-65, with 32.5 seconds remaining. And it would get a whole lot more interesting. Notre Dame’s first attempt at an in-bound resulted in a timeout. Its second attempt saw Connaughton look long for Jackson, whose effort to save the baseball pass that traveled the length of the floor ended with the last of Notre Dame’s 19 turnovers.

Just getting to the pass was a chore for Jackson, who was smacked by Zach Stahl minutes earlier while the two chased a loose ball near midcourt. Jackson admitted to Brey that he thought he could get to Connaughton’s pass, but he couldn’t quite see it with vision in his right eye still blurred.

The final sequence was about to come into clear focus.

Unable to set up a final set play or get Eatherton, who was on the bench, back into the game because it had no timeouts, Northeastern had to go quickly. Too quickly. The Huskies had been really good Thursday getting something solid out of a timeout.

“I wish we had one left,” said coach Bill Coen. “I don’t know if I had the timeout if we would have run anything different or done anything differently.

“It was just really a matter of execution.”

The Irish stayed in their basic man defense, and knew to watch out for a 3.

“You still have that confidence that you’ve done it before,” Connaughton said. “You’ve got to focus out there like it’s the same thing.”

With the clock under 10 and everything getting really tense, Grant reached in after briefly doubling with Jackson to spring the ball loose from Northeastern’s Quincy Ford. Zach Auguste corralled the loose ball, went to the foul line and bumped the Irish up four and into the third round for the first time since Notre Dame beat Akron four years earlier in Chicago.

“I just wanted to make a play,” said Grant, who finished with 17 points five assists and three rebounds in 40 minutes while battling stomach sickness. “This is March. Crazy things happen. I didn’t want them to get a shot up. I just decided to make a play and we got the ball.”

The Irish were a No. 2 seed that day in 2011 when that win didn’t come easily. Same situation Thursday as the No. 3 seed.

Survive.

Check.

Advance.

Check.

Auguste led the Irish with 25 points. A career 53-percent foul shooter coming in the season, Auguste had made 64.3 percent from the line this season. Few free throws were as important as the ones as he hit with 1.9 seconds left to close it out. And he was confident he could close it out.

Auguste makes sure to make at least five in a row at the end of every practice. He shot seven Thursday and made five.

“It was good,” he said. “That’s something that the team needed. Most important, we needed them to win and that’s what I did.”

Falling into early foul trouble didn’t allow Auguste to fall out of the rotation. He kept playing, kept plugging, and when he was asked to deliver, he delivered. Auguste picked up two fouls the first 5:14, then was whistled for his third 14 seconds in the second half.

He eventually got a fourth, but never a fifth.

“It was a matter of being more mature,” Auguste said. “I have no room for error. I can’t put my head down. My brothers picked me up and held me accountable.

“I knew I had to get in the game.”

It was the first game of the 2015 NCAA tournament to start. Last year’s first tournament opener featured an upset by Dayton of Ohio State.

Chalk this one as a near-miss. A very near-miss.

“We certainly gave CBS a great kickoff to the tournament,” Brey said. “We gave them a great show to start.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com | (574) 235-6153 | @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame's Zach Auguste (30) celebrates after making a foul shot with time running down in the second half of an NCAA tournament second round college basketball game against Northeastern, Thursday, March 19, 2015, in Pittsburgh. Notre Dame won 69-65 to advance to the third round. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

NCAA Tournament

Third round

• WHO: No. 3 seed Notre Dame (30-5 overall, 14-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. No. 6 Butler (23-10, 12-6 Big East).

• WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center (19,100), Pittsburgh.

• WHEN: Saturday, 9:40 p.m. (approximately).

• TV: TBS.

• RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

• ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.