March Madness: Notre Dame keeps rolling along with no reason to stop

Tom Noie
ND Insider

SAN DIEGO — Three days earlier and 2,200 miles away, the Notre Dame men’s basketball team practiced on the main floor of University of Dayton Arena to the sounds of a 1980s song from Hall & Oates, appropriate for this time of year. 

“You Make My Dreams (Come True).” 

On Friday, in a first-round NCAA Tournament West Region game against No. 6 seed Alabama, those dreams remained alive for No. 11 Notre Dame (24-10) at Viejas Arena following a 78-64 victory.

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It really wasn't that close in a game the Irish led for more than 30 minutes.  

Here are three reasons: 

Cormac Ryan happened 

Maybe the one guy whose game has elevated over the last six more than any other Irish, Ryan offense keeps it real. Painfully real. Brutally real. No excuses win or lose and he wasn’t going to start now. 

Mar 18, 2022; San Diego, CA, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Cormac Ryan (5) reacts after a play in the second half against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the first round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament at Viejas Arena. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan broke free for 18 points in the first half, two shy of his season high. The guy was beyond on fire, hitting seven of eight shots from the field, four of five from 3. He brought the swagger that his teammates could feed off. 

Why was Ryan named a team captain last season before he had ever played in a game? We saw why Friday. He was beyond good. He was special. 

Needing a bucket with the lead bleeding early in the second half, Ryan delivered another 3 to bump the lead back to five. 

Ryan finished with a career-high 29 points. 

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When Ryan needed a break, Blake Wesley stepped into the spotlight with three big drives, the last of which capped a 6-0 run and pushed the Irish up 14 with eight-plus minutes remaining. 

Looking at the Irish body language, you could tell they smelled that second round. 

Ryan’s big-time bail-out 3 to beat the shot clock and put Notre Dame up 11 may have sealed it. Wesley made sure with a late bucket. When he got that one, it was over.

The Irish went on one of those runs 

The narrative of the quick turnaround wasn’t going to go away, and seemingly was set to surface from the national talking heads every time it seemed like the Irish would get sluggish. Like when they trailed late in the first half by four. 

Notre Dame then found one of its really good offensive gears and got going in a hurry. 

The Irish scored six straight to retake the lead, but weren’t done. Ryan dropped in another 3. Nate Laszewski got loose for a couple buckets, including a 3. Then a Ryan lay-in capped the run at 20-6 and gave the Irish an eight-point lead. 

It was almost as if Notre Dame didn’t want a 20-minute halftime. The Irish seemed on the verge of busting this one open. Instead, it took a five-point lead at the break. 

Two nights after trailing Rutgers 41-36, Notre Dame led Alabama 41-36. 

That late first-half spurt gave them the confidence that they couldn’t only compete, but win. That was big. 

Tired legs? What tired legs? 

Notre Dame had basically 33 hours from the time it landed in San Diego until the time it played Friday afternoon, but that didn’t seem to matter. 

The Irish showed little signs of being sluggish, even after two of the main seven guys fell into early foul trouble. The Irish started slowly, hitting only one of their first seven shots, but kept probing, kept plugging. By the end of the first half, they had led by eight and had shot 59.3 percent from the field, 75 percent from 3. 

Mike Brey maintained his seven-man rotation. If he wasn’t going any deeper during the regular season, and often during one-sided games, he certainly wasn’t going to start now. 

He was going to ride that core rotation all the way to the second round. 

What’s next for Notre Dame? 

A really challenging second round game against No. 3 seed Texas Tech, which had little problem dispatching Montana State (97-62) in the first game of the day at Viejas. 

A win would send Notre Dame to its fourth Sweet 16 during Brey’s 22-year tenure and first since 2016. Notre Dame was one of the last teams in the field of 68 at week’s end, but as the field was cut to 32 late Friday, the Irish showed no sign of wanting this run to end. 

Notre Dame was a popular upset pick heading into Friday. That might not be the case Sunday against a Texas Tech team that often smothers/overwhelms the opposition. 

Tip time for Sunday’s game is 4:10 p.m. (EST). 

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