Analysis: Forget style points, NCAA Tournament win all that matters for Notre Dame men

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

BUFFALO, N.Y. – When it was over, and this would not be the last time this season he pulled off the mustard-gold uniform after a college basketball game. junior power forward Bonzie Colson sat in front of his stall in the Notre Dame locker room, exhaled and smiled.

Big.

Wide.

Happy.

That collective Irish exhale blew across the border into Canada. And all the way back to South Bend. Brackets north and south, east and west, were safe.

At least for the opening game of the opening full day of the NCAA Tournament.

This one, Colson insisted, was fun. So smile. Enjoy it. Embrace it. Then flush the too-close-for-comfort final score of 60-58 against No. 12 Princeton and move on to the next one.

“This is March, man,” Colson said. “This is what March is about. We won, man. Everybody’s happy; everybody’s confident. Excited.

“We get to play again. It’s a blessing.”

The Irish (26-9) were living right and living large early Thursday afternoon even after letting a double-digit lead in the second half get away and then surviving a potential game-winning 3-pointer in the closing seconds.

Forget trying to get back to the Elite Eight for a third-straight season, No. 5 seed Notre Dame was thisclose — maybe closer — from being forced to and pack up and head for home in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at KeyBank Center. It was all on edge.

But the Irish advanced.

“Man, tough, gritty wins like that, they’re really the best, finding a way to do it in the NCAA Tournament,” said senior captain V.J. Beachem. “Just finding ways to win, that’s what it’s all about.”

The Irish have done this dance in the dance. A lot.

This was the 2011 slog past Akron over at United Center in Chicago. This was the 2015 escape over in Pittsburgh against Northeastern. Heck, this one even mustered memories of Notre Dame nearly being beaten by Milwaukee before a point-blank layup rolled off at the horn way back in 2003 at the long-since-gone RCA Dome. All of this was about that adage made famous by the 1983 North Carolina State team that came from nowhere to capture the nation’s hearts by winning the national championship.

Survive.

Done.

Advance.

Done.

Afterward, Colson smiled. Yeah, for him and his teammates, OK, some of them, this was fun because when it was over — and it was almost over for good for an Irish team that has now won nine off its last 11 — all that mattered is that they get to play another day.

“Gave everybody a show,” said coach Mike Brey, who tossed aside his suit coat in the closing seconds when it felt like the building was closing in on him and his team. “We know what we’re supposed to do.”

That would be close out close games. But what the Irish didn’t do was maintain a comfortable working lead. They didn’t figure out how to guard against the corner 3 off Princeton penetration. They didn’t close this out when it could have been closed out, which allowed the big hockey building downtown to turn its alliance toward the Tigers in the final minutes.

During the grind of the regular season, all those shortcomings would linger. Notre Dame didn’t play like Notre Dame for stretches, didn’t run good offense, didn’t convert really good looks. Didn’t play the way the nation’s No. 14 team should play. Has to play.

That would matter much with a road trip to Georgia Tech coming up or a home game against Clemson on tap.

None of what the Irish couldn’t do Thursday mattered after this one.

None of it.

Survive.

Advance.

Be better and get it right Saturday (12:10 p.m. EDT; CBS) in the second round against No. 4 West Virginia, which beat No. 13 Bucknell in the day’s second game in Buffalo.

In the immediately moments afterward, there were some ghost-like facial expressions from coaches and players and team personnel alike. Yeah, they admitted, they saw it all flash before their eyes. All the work. The workouts. The film sessions. Almost all gone in 40 minutes in a game the Irish trailed for all of 17 seconds.

Had it been 18, the Irish would have been finished.

But once that what-if and near-miss cleared, all anyone likely will remember is the circle around the Notre Dame name in the tournament bracket instead of a line.

And the line was ready to be drawn through the Notre Dame name by, of all people, someone who once dreamed about playing for Notre Dame.

Princeton sophomore guard and Mishawaka native Devin Cannady, who played his share of pickup ball with and against the current Irish, had a good look — a really good look — from the wing with the Irish up one and three second left.

Hollywood would have rejected this storybook script. Are you kidding? The hometown kid beating the hometown team that didn’t seriously recruit him after his junior year?

Nobody would believe it.

And Cannady’s shot looked believable.

“When it left my hands. I thought it was going in,” he said. “It’s a good look; it’s a shot I’ve taken before. The ball didn’t fall the way I wanted it to.”

It certainly looked good from the view by Beachem, who was standing under the basket and was about to possibly see his collegiate career come to a close.

It looked good from far down press row. It wouldn’t be the madness of March unless Cannady’s shot indeed fell. Storybook times 10.

Instead, it rimmed out, Notre Dame grabbed the rebound, Steve Vasturia hit a free throw and when time expired, tournament win No. 7 since 2015 was complete.

“The way we’ve been in the tournament, we’ve had a lot of tough first games,” Vasturia said. “At the end of the day, you can scratch it out, you can claw it out (and) it gives you confidence moving forward.”

Irish guard Matt Farrell scored 16 points with four assists, four rebounds and two steals in 36 minutes. But he was beyond frustrated afterward. Over how he couldn’t get good shots to fall. Over his missed free throw on the front end of a one-and-one with 10.6 seconds left and the Irish up one, which set up Princeton’s final shot.

Over everything.

By nightfall, none of it would matter. Can’t.

“March,” Farrell said, “is crazy already.”

And Notre Dame still is a part of it.

PRINCETON (23-7): Spencer Weisz 6-11 0-0 15, Pete Miller 2-3 0-0 4, Steven Cook 4-11 0-0 11, Devin Cannady 2-11 1-1 7, Myles Stephens 3-11 4-4 10, Alec Brennan 0-0 0-0 0, Will Gladson 2-4 0-0 4, Aaron Young 0-0 0-0 0, Amir Bell 3-6 1-1 7. Totals 22-57 6-6 58.

NOTRE DAME (26-9): Bonzie Colson 6-13 6-10 18, V.J. Beachem 1-9 0-0 2, Matt Farrell 6-9 1-3 16, Rex Pflueger 2-3 0-0 4, Steve Vasturia 3-12 3-4 10, Austin Torres 0-1 0-0 0, Martinas Geben 1-1 0-0 2, Matt Ryan 2-3 2-2 6, T.J. Gibbs 0-1 2-2 2. Totals 21-52 14-21 60.

Halftime--Notre Dame 36-30. 3-Point Goals--Princeton 8-31 (Cook 3-6, Weisz 3-7, Cannady 2-10, Gladson 0-2, Stephens 0-3, Bell 0-3), Notre Dame 4-11 (Farrell 3-5, Vasturia 1-2, Colson 0-1, Beachem 0-3). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Princeton 32 (Bell, Cook 7), Notre Dame 33 (Vasturia 8). Assists--Princeton 13 (Weisz 4), Notre Dame 10 (Farrell 4). Total Fouls--Princeton 14, Notre Dame 9.

An NCAA Tournament win is a win for power forward Bonzie Colson and No. 5 seed Notre Dame, which withstood Princeton. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)