Capitalizing on a rare blend of experienced upperclassmen, competitive fire in crucial moments, and to some degree the inspired play following the death of head coach Mike Brey’s mother, the No. 3-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish (31-5, 14-4 ACC) have gutted their way into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003.
After blazing through the ACC tournament, during which they blew past ranked Duke and North Carolina, the Irish avoided scares from No. 14 seed Northeastern and No. 6 Butler in their first two games.
Their next date is with No. 7 Wichita State, the tournament darlings of late, in Thursday’s Midwest Region semifinal. A possible matchup with prohibitive favorite Kentucky looms for a shot at just the second Final Four appearance in the program’s history.
Shortly after the 67-64 overtime win over Butler, Brey would say his mother, Betty, passed away the morning before the game and how he felt her presence during the nail biter.
"It was kind of a tribute to her,'' Brey said according to ESPN. “It was really a special night. ... I think she was definitely with us down the stretch.''
Brey picked up the eighth tournament victory of his 20-year career behind senior guard Jerian Grant’s clutch 16 points and another 20 points from sophomore shooting guard Steve Vasturia. Junior forward Zach Auguste also pulled down 13 rebounds and guard Demetrius Jackson totaled an efficient 13 points off eight field-goal attempts.
But coming up big in the extra period has been tantamount to Notre Dame’s success. It was the fourth overtime game for the Irish this season, with Grant the leading scorer in three of them, and coming up with a last-second, game-saving block against NC State back on Jan. 25.
Grant, the son of former NBA player Harvey and nephew to four-time NBA champion Horace, was one of only two unanimous selections for the All-ACC first team this season. Acting as Notre Dame’s primary scorer and facilitator, Grant recorded 16.8 points and 6.6 assists per game, while shooting 48.6 percent from the field for a squad that is second in the nation with a 51-percent shooting rate.
Surrounding Grant is the type of complementary players that come up with clutch moments cherished by fans and praised by coaches. Much of that praise starts with senior Pat Connaughton.
The 6-foot-5 swingman came up with a devastating block, his fifth of the game, on Butler’s Kellen Dunham in overtime and nailed a back-breaking three-pointer to keep the Irish up for good. Perhaps more importantly, Connaughton has been an emotional leader, by inspiring his teammates with his energy and hustle.
Connaughton was second only to Grant in the ACC tourney final against North Carolina with 20 points, nailing four of his five three-point attempts and for the season he’s averaged 12.5 points and a team-best 7.3 rebounds per game. He’s also first on the squad from long range, knocking down 42.7 percent of his three-point attempts.
Then there’s Auguste, who led all scorers with 25 points and five rebounds to keep pesky Northeastern at bay in the tournament-opener, but Auguste found plenty of ways to fill up the box score all season. The 13 boards against Butler were an Irish-high, and like Connaughton he came through with 16 points and 13 rebounds against the Tar Heels. In the overtime win over the Wolfpack, Auguste recorded his then-third double-double of the season with 10 points and 11 rebounds, and despite being limited by four fouls notched 13 points in the double-overtime victory over Georgia Tech on Jan. 3.
Vasturia, the key underclassmen contributor, has been especially effective in extra periods. He dropped 12 points on 4-for-7 shooting in the 79-78 overtime win over Michigan State, poured in 17 points against the Yellow Jackets, and his 20 points against Butler was a career-high.
It’s this clique Brey takes up against the Shockers, a team loaded with tournament-tested and savvy upperclassmen like guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet. Wichita State already upended No. 2 seed Kansas by a comfortable final score of 78-65 and during the regular season it was ranked as high as No. 8 in the country.
But as good as the Shockers have been, the Irish could get wrapped up in the likely regional final date with Kentucky. The Wildcats face a slight obstacle against Cincinnati in the third round, but still handily won 64-51 and haven’t faced a close contest in the waning moments since sliding past LSU, 71-59, on Feb. 10.
Next Opponent: Wichita State (No. 7 seed)
Date: Thursday, March 26
Time: 7:15 p.m. ET
Where: Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland
Betting Odds: Wichita State is favored by 1 point, according to Vegas Insider.