Notre Dame men steal into Elite Eight

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

PHILADELPHIA — Just when another new and impossible-to-believe chapter about the madness of March couldn’t be written, it was.

Just when it looked like Notre Dame couldn’t find any other way to win an NCAA Tournament game, it did.

Irish junior guard Demetrius Jackson made sure of it.

With a look in his eye over the final 30 seconds of Friday’s East Region semifinal game against seventh-seeded Wisconsin that said he wasn’t going to be denied or stopped on either end, Jackson delivered on all levels in a ridiculous way as an improbable scene unfolded at Wells Fargo Center.

Jackson fueled a furious comeback driven by defensive pressure and energy and intensity to erase a three-point deficit with 26 seconds remaining and give sixth-seeded Notre Dame a 61-56 victory on Good Friday.

Make that a Great Friday.

Notre Dame scored eight unanswered points in 16 seconds and advances to the Elite Eight for a second consecutive season. It will play No. 1 seed North Carolina (31-6) at 8:49 p.m. EDT on Easter Sunday for the right to advance to next week’s Final Four at NRG Stadium in Houston.

The Irish (24-11) are a win away for a second straight March from their first Final Four since 1978.

“I’m just really happy to keep it rolling, keep it going,” Jackson said.

But ... but ... HOW?

“I don’t know, honestly,” said junior guard Steve Vasturia. “We just kept playing, kept battling. We just find a way to win at the end of the game.”

Did it all really happen or was it some crazy dream? Put it a script, and certainly it would never sell.

“It’s crazy, man,” said senior power forward Zach Auguste, who saw his career flash before his eyes with the Irish down and expected out in the closing seconds. “It’s still so surreal. I’m still trying to put it together.”

For the third straight tournament game, Notre Dame found a new and even more heart-stopping way to sidestep summer vacation.

Last week in its NCAA opener against Michigan, Notre Dame erased a 12-point halftime deficit to survive and advance. Two nights later, a little luck of the Irish helped freshman guard Rex Pflueger carve out some space for a tip-back winner with 1.5 seconds remaining.

How would the Irish figure it out on a night when seemingly nothing went right offensively? In a game in which they made just seven of 29 shots in a sluggish (that’s being kind) first half? A night where they struggled to get anything that resembled offensive efficiency going?

With defense, of course. The defense that this program was supposed to never play, at least when it was all on the line.

It was all on the line Friday, and they played it. In bunches.

And when any amount of defensive intensity and energy are needed, Notre Dame knows it can call on one guy to provide it in waves — Jackson.

The Mishawaka native concocted 19 seconds to forever be remembered in Irish basketball history, 19 seconds that would have to rank right there with the miracle comeback that snapped UCLA’s 88-game win streak in 1974.

Jackson wasn’t just good. He was scary good. You could see it in his eyes.

His teammates saw it in his eyes. They know that look. They’ve seen that look. In offseason pickup games. In preseason practices. When it surfaces, they know to look out and get out of his way.

“He’s got a great will to win," Vasturia said. "He wasn’t going to let us go home tonight.”

Afterward, as he traversed a back hallway toward the locker room, Jackson could offer only a sly smile as if to say, “How do you like that?”

“I just want to be aggressive defensively,” Jackson said. “Just digging in, trying to find a way to win.”

Looking to go two-for-one (again) after a Vitto Brown 3-pointer gave the Badgers a 56-53 lead with 27 seconds left, Jackson wisely bypassed any thought of a quick 3 for something sure.

He drove it hard to the hoop for a layup that cut the Irish deficit to one, 56-55 with 19 seconds remaining. Time for a little full-court pressure — of blast-furnace levels — that saw Jackson and Bonzie Colson throw a fly-trap press on Nigel Hayes.

Hayes coughed it up, Jackson snatched it up and dropped it down for a 57-56 Irish lead.

“The ball just came to me,” Jackson said. “I just had an easy layup on that one.”

Notre Dame never trailed again.

Game effectively over.

Hello, Elite Eight.

Again.

With the Irish up three following two clutch free throws from V.J. Beachem, Jackson turned the defensive screws again. He swiped the ball from Bronson Koenig, then flipped a Badger foul into two more free throws. Colson capped it with a steal in the closing seconds and just like that, it was over.

Improbably.

“We find a way to win,” Colson said. “That’s what it comes down to.”

“It’s almost in our DNA to believe,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “We’re by far the toughest team left mentally to do what we’ve done to advance.

“There’s a great will with this group and a belief.”

Wisconsin, which found a way to win earlier in the week when its 3-pointer at the buzzer ousted second-seeded Xavier, finishes 22-13.

“This,” said coach Greg Gard, “is going to sting for a long time.”

Notre Dame’s comeback was kick-started by two free throws from Auguste, who went to the foul line with the Irish down two and 46.5 seconds remaining.

Flashback to the Alabama game earlier this season. With the opportunity to seal a close game in the final 30 seconds, Auguste missed two free throws. But he wasn’t missing these. He connected on both to tie it at 53 and keep the comeback dream alive.

“I’m a senior, yeah, I got it,” Auguste said. “I couldn’t let that be my last time. I had to knock those down for my team and for me. I knew they were big.”

How had it all happened? Not even everyone in the locker room was sure. Pflueger sat in a corner cubicle scanning his phone, maybe for some indication that it was indeed reality.

Fellow freshman Matt Ryan just sat there, legs stretched out taking it all in, trying to process that there’s still practice Saturday, another game Sunday, maybe more later in the week.

Even former Irish guard Jerian Grant, now a rookie with the New York Knicks, joined the postgame locker room, where he took a seat next to Ryan and junior Austin Torres and just ... smiled.

Out in the hallway, Brey limped back from the postgame press conference alongside his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick. A red folding chair was summoned and Brey all but collapsed into it.

Getting himself worked into a lather in the spirited second half, Brey jumped up and pulled a muscle in his right calf. A bag of ice of strapped to his lower right leg. A visit to the team doctor would be in order before the night was over.

Brey first feared a ruptured Achilles tendon, which might have required surgery on the day his team plays for the right to go to the Final Four.

“I told the guys I’m the first one taped Sunday,” Brey said.

A surreal sight on a surreal night.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

NOTRE DAME 61, WISCONSIN 56

WISCONSIN (56): Hayes 4-12 1-2 11, Happ 6-12 2-2 14, Brown 3-8 0-0 8, Showalter 5-10 0-0 11, Koenig 3-12 1-2 8, Hill 1-2 0-0 2, Thomas 0-0 0-0 0, Iverson 1-1 0-0 2, Illikainen 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-57 4-6 56.

NOTRE DAME (61): Beachem 7-11 2-2 19, Auguste 4-9 5-6 13, Farrell 3-5 0-0 7, Jackson 6-18 4-4 16, Vasturia 1-6 0-0 2, Pflueger 0-0 0-0 0, Ryan 0-1 0-0 0, Colson 1-5 2-2 4. Totals 22-55 13-14 61.

Halftime--Wisconsin 23-19. 3-Point Goals--Wisconsin 6-20 (Hayes 2-4, Brown 2-6, Showalter 1-4, Koenig 1-6), Notre Dame 4-13 (Beachem 3-5, Farrell 1-2, Ryan 0-1, Jackson 0-2, Vasturia 0-3). Fouled Out--Happ. Rebounds--Wisconsin 36 (Happ 12), Notre Dame 32 (Auguste 12). Assists--Wisconsin 11 (Brown, Hayes, Showalter 3), Notre Dame 13 (Jackson 6). Total Fouls--Wisconsin 15, Notre Dame 9. A--NA.

Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson (11) celebrates on the court in the final moments of Notre Dame's 61-56 victory over Wisconsin in the NCAA Sweet 16 game, Friday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)