March Madness: What happened in First Four NCAA Tournament game for Notre Dame basketball

Tom Noie
ND Insider

DAYTON, Ohio — This time of the year, it doesn’t matter how a team gets to the end of the game. It doesn’t matter if it’s easy on the eyes or hard to watch. Just be on the right side of the scoreboard when it’s over so you can live to play another day. 

Another day to keep that national championship dream, however remote, alive. 

Notre Dame won in double overtime, 89-87, against Rutgers Wednesday night (actually it went final a few minutes into St. Patrick's Day) in a First Four game. Here are three reasons why: 

The old guy was the best guy 

Graduate student Paul Atkinson couldn’t wait to get back on the floor after feeling like he let the Irish down in their Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinal loss to Virginia Tech last week. 

He wanted to start quickly and be a force. He did and he was. 

Atkinson led the Irish with 16 points in the first half and allowed Notre Dame to establish itself inside, where it could go early and often for points and plays and buckets. Atkinson set an early tone, and everyone else fell in behind him. 

► MARCH MADNESS LIVE: Notre Dame basketball defeats Rutgers in double-overtime, NCAA Tournament updates

That was good for Atkinson, and good for the Irish. 

Atkinson was quiet in the second half, but that allowed the other guys to get going. 

Atkinson had a key block early in the second overtime, then a key rebound dunk. He was huge was needed. Atkinson delivered the rebound basket to win it and finish with 26 points.

Big-time.

Mar 16, 2022; Dayton, Ohio, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish forward Paul Atkinson Jr. (20) goes to the basket in the first half against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at University of Dayton Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame got to the rim 

No use looking to shoot a lot of 3s, at least in the first half of this one. Rutgers may play that grind-it, black-and-blue basketball in the Big Ten, but the lane was open early and often. 

So, the Irish did what good teams do — they exploited that weakness. At times, the Irish shredded the Knights’ defense. When it was there. A lot of times, it wasn’t. 

The Irish scored a whopping 30 points in the paint in the first half. It was that and two t3-pointers for the 36 first-half points. There was no need to shoot a 3. Drive it, push some pressure on the defense and that would eventually open everything else up. 

Blake Wesley settled for a 3 in the first half — which he airballed — and it was like, ugh. Second half, Wesley gave the Irish their first lead with a drive to the bucket. That was there all night long. 

Late in the second overtime, Notre Dame had a staggering 56 points in the paint. 

Fighting Irish finally looked like themselves in the second half 

There were spurts in the first half when Notre Dame looked like Notre Dame with good movement and sound defense, but Rutgers still led by five at the break. That the Irish ignored the deficit and found a way out was big. The tendency is to get really tight staring at the end of a long season. 

Notre Dame just kind of played. Believed. Moved on. 

Even when the Irish fell down eight early in the second half, there was plenty of fight left. They showed it. 

When this one got tight, you just kind of figured the Irish were going to figure this out. Even after Rutgers had a chance to win it at the end of regulation but didn’t. That gave the Irish another chance. And life. 

► Notre Dame basketball's journey:Notre Dame men's basketball team has plenty to prove and a short time to do it

What’s next for Notre Dame? 

A really long charter flight to San Diego that will deliver Notre Dame to the West Coast sometime before or just after sunrise, but no one seems to mind.

This was going to be a tough turnaround regardless, but winning a First Four game and sending the Irish into the first round against Alabama is something this program will take. 

Friday’s closing quickly, but it beats the alternative or a bus ride home and an uncertain offseason. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI