Notebook: Irish 'night-stalkers' ready to go to work

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH – The difference in NCAA tournament start times for No. 3 seed Notre Dame this weekend is enough to nearly complete a non-stop flight from Chicago to Hong Kong, or drive straight through from South Bend to New York.

After opening play with the first game of the day Thursday at 12:15 p.m., Notre Dame's third round game against Butler (23-10) Saturday night will start nearly 10 hours later.

The game between the two Indiana schools is not scheduled to start before 9:40 p.m. (TBS), and could be pushed closer to 10. Welcome to the ways of the NCAA tournament world, where television dictates all the start times.

“I can’t complain about the time of the start,” said Irish senior captain Pat Connaughton. “We play well at night. We’ll be ready to go.”

So much so that an Irish team already known as “Road Dawgs” for its 13 victories away from South Bend this season has picked up another moniker courtesy of head coach Mike Brey.

“The ‘night-stalkers’ are very happy to be back stalking at night,” Brey said. “That’s my term, baby. We love it.”

Notre Dame found itself in a similar early-late situation the last time it advanced to the third round of the NCAA tournament. Back in 2011, Notre Dame opened as the No. 2 seed against No. 15 Akron in a game that tipped at 1:40 p.m. Two days later, Notre Dame was beaten by Florida State in a Sunday night game that didn’t start until close to 10 p.m.

Notre Dame succeeded in the late time slot in last week’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinal and semifinal games against Miami (Fla.) and Duke before winning the tournament championship over North Carolina in a game that started at 8:40.

The Irish embrace the late slot. The building’s abuzz and there’s a different vibe in the stands. It’s not as sleepy as Thursday’s opener.

“The energy in the building is high ‘cause the first game (No. 1 seed Villanova against No. 8 North Carolina State) game gets it heated up a little bit,” Brey said. “The building will be sweating a little bit by the time we get in there.”

Notre Dame has been really good this season once the sun goes down. Of its five losses, only two have come in traditional evening tip-off slots. Notre Dame lost at home in early January to Virginia, then lost in late February at home to Syracuse. Those games started at 6 and 8 p.m.

The three other Irish losses – to Providence, to Pittsburgh and to Duke – were games that started at 2:30 p.m., noon and 1.

“We have more preparation time,” said senior guard Jerian Grant. “We can sit back and focus and envision the game rather than waking up and playing almost right away.

“You know all eyes are on you. Everybody’s watching. You want to put on your ‘A’ game.”

Crazy first day

Tense moments right until the final buzzer Thursday were not reserved for the Notre Dame-Northeastern game, which was the first tournament game of a wild opening day.

Of the 16 games played Thursday, nine were decided by four points or fewer, including Notre Dame’s 69-65 victory that wasn’t certain until two Zach Auguste free throws with 1.9 seconds remaining. Thursday’s first round featured 11 games decided by fewer than 10 points and two overtime games, including Purdue’s loss to Cincinnati.

The nine games decided by four points or fewer or the most in NCAA tournament play since March 15, 2001.

Of the three No. 3 seeds that played Thursday, Notre Dame was the only one to win its tournament opener. Two Big 12 teams that were No. 3 seeds – Baylor and Iowa State – were upset by 14 seeds Georgia State and Alabama Birmingham. Oklahoma, also from the Big 12, was the tournament’s fourth No. 3 seed and opened play Friday against Albany.

Every team in the tourney marches on with the same motto – survive and advance.

Tourney tidbits

• Demetrius Jackson, who has 17 assists in his last three games including a career-high eight against Northeastern, suffered a minor scratch of his right cornea while chasing a loose ball late in Thursday’s game, but was expected to be fine Saturday with no restrictions.

• Following Thursday’s win over Northeastern, Notre Dame held a team dinner at Grill 36, the North Shore restaurant owned by former Irish fullback Jerome Bettis. Brey said he called Bettis and told him they were walking out on the check.

• The Irish held a 90-minutes practice closed to the media and public Friday afternoon at CONSOL Energy Center before their mandatory media sessions. It was the only practice of the day scheduled.

• Now at 30-5, Notre Dame has won the second-most games in school history behind only the 33 in 1908-09.

• Notre Dame is 32-37 all-time in NCAA tournament play.

• Senior guard Jerian Grant enters Saturday in 12th place on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,699 points and third in assists with 668. Grant has a team-high 19 assists in the last three games.

• The Irish are 13-3 in games played away from home this season. Notre Dame has won its last seven away from Purcell Pavilion dating back to the 90-60 loss Feb. 7 at Duke.

• According to the most recent NCAA statistics. Butler entered postseason play ranked 111th in scoring offense (69.6), 49th in scoring defense (61.2), 107th in field goal percentage defense (41.6), 223th in free throw percentage (68.0), 171st in assist/turnover ratio (1.01) and tied for 255th nationally in assists per game at 11.5. The Bulldogs do not rank in the Top 20 of any of the 31 major statistical categories.

• Able to enjoy sunshine and 70-plus degree temperatures back home earlier in the week, Notre Dame was greeted Friday by gray skies, foggy conditions and snow showers in Pittsburgh.

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Notre Dame coach Mike Brey has come to refer to his team as the "night-stalkers" for their penchant for playing well and playing at night.AP Photo/KEITH SRAKOCIC