Defense helps drive Notre Dame hoops to Cleveland

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

At some point somewhere along this postseason road, the narrative that seems to still surround the Notre Dame men’s basketball program might need to be scrapped.

Off to its first Sweet 16 in 12 years when it faces No. 7 seed Wichita State (30-4) at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on Thursday (7:15 p.m., CBS), No. 3 seed Notre Dame (31-5) has shredded its previous reputation as a shoot first, second and third while only occasionally defending outfit.

The Irish rely too much on the 3-point shot to win when it matters, many have mused. The Irish cannot consistently defend over the long haul, others have opined.

Notre Dame shot a few holes in both of those storylines over the weekend while winning two NCAA tournament games for the first time since 2003. If it wasn't for defense, the Irish wouldn't have been back at practice Monday, their season extended yet another week.

On Thursday, Notre Dame tied its season low for 3-pointers made (2) in a four-point victory over Northeastern in a second-round grind. On Saturday, in what likely became an instant tournament classic, Notre Dame needed to dig in, defend and get three stops late in regulation to eventually beat Butler, 67-64, in overtime.

“Everybody talks about our offense,” said senior captain Pat Connaughton. “But to be able to get that stop on the defensive end to send us into overtime and send us to the Sweet 16 is something I’m very proud of these guys for.”

Defense, or a lack thereof, once was a limit for Notre Dame, which has long been known for its offensive efficiency. That Notre Dame extended its season because of defense should be little surprise.

Irish fans previously saw this movie throughout the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season. Notre Dame needed stops to get league road wins against North Carolina and Georgia Tech, against North Carolina State and Clemson. It got them. Irish fans then saw it at the conference tournament on three consecutive nights when one could start to sense that there was something magical about this group.

Notre Dame needed to defend to beat Miami (Fla.) in the quarterfinals. Did it. The Irish were down by two with 6:30 remaining, then limited the Hurricanes to two baskets the rest of the way. Notre Dame needed to defend the next night to beat Duke in the semifinals. The Blue Devils managed one basket – a 3-pointer – the final four minutes.

In the league tournament championship, Notre Dame seemingly faced the longest of odds when down nine with 9:56 remaining against North Carolina. The Irish then scored 36 points before the buzzer sounded. At one point Notre Dame delivered a dominant 26-3 run. That included a period of 15 unanswered points where Carolina staggered through nearly eight minutes of play with only one basket.

The Fighting Irish? How about the defending Irish?

Notre Dame enters the second weekend of NCAA tournament ranked 145th in the country for scoring defense (65.6 ppg.) and 157th in field goal percentage defense (42.6 percent). Opposing teams still have scored and gotten shots against the Irish, who now better understand when and how to get a big stop.

Even in Pittsburgh, 48 hours before Notre Dame had to defend three separate possessions in the final five seconds of regulation to beat Butler, Notre Dame fans saw what type of defense the Irish could play when Jerian Grant helped cement a second-round win over No. 14 Northeastern with quick hands and a steal in the closing seconds.

Notre Dame remains one of the most efficient offensive outfits still in the NCAA tournament, a group that can cut teams up with their transition, their ball movement, their cruel shot-making at critical times. But if they have to roll up their sleeves and get a stop, get a rebound, make a stand, well, they’re fine with doing that as well.

Notre Dame limited Butler to eight points in the final 9:27 of regulation. That wiped clean a six-point deficit, forced overtime, and advanced Notre Dame to the Midwest Regional final four.

“We really won with our defense,” said sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson.

“It’s so hard to beat us,” Grant said. “We have so many weapons offensively and defensively, when we’re digging in like that, the sky’s the limit for us.”

On Saturday, Butler had three chances to win it in the final five seconds of regulation. The Bulldogs went 0-for-3. Prior to those handful of possessions, Connaughton addressed the Irish in their huddle. He stressed that if this team wants to be remembered as special, it had to do it then and there with defense.

Then they did.

“We had to lock in,” Grant said. “That’s what makes it so special. If we can do that defensively, we can go a long way.

“Our best is yet to come.”

Tourney tidbits

• The ACC has five teams in the Sweet 16 for the first time in league history. The only league team not to advance out of the tournament's opening weekend was two-time league champion Virginia.

• Notre Dame is a combined 7-1 this season against the other 15 teams in the Sweet 16. The Irish have twice beaten Duke and North Carolina, have overtime victories over Michigan State and North Carolina State and a late-season win over Louisville.

• Top-seeded Kentucky and former Big East colleague West Virginia, a No. 5 seed, are on the other side of the Sweet 16 bracket in Cleveland and will play the nightcap of the Thursday doubleheader.

• The announcing team of Marv Albert, Len Elmore and Chris Webber with sideline reporter Lewis Johnson will work the Midwest Regional games in Cleveland for CBS.

• Notre Dame’s 50-minute practice Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena, which is free and open to the public, begins at 2:10 p.m.

NCAA Tournament

Midwest Region


WHO: No. 3 seed Notre Dame (31-5 overall, 14-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. No. 7 Wichita State (30-4, 17-1 Missouri Valley Conference).

WHERE: Quicken Loans Arena (20,562), Cleveland.

WHEN: Thursday at 7:15 p.m.


RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at