Notre Dame survives scare from Princeton in opening round
Marek Mazurek | Thursday, March 16, 2017
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Irish head coach Mike Brey told reporters that he prepared two speeches on the bus ride over to KeyBank Arena: one if Notre dame won, and another if Notre Dame lost.
In the final minute of Notre Dame’s matchup against Princeton (23-7, 16-0 Ivy League), it looked like Brey would be forced to pull out the second speech.
But Princeton sophomore guard Devin Cannady missed a deep 3-point shot in the waning seconds of the game to send the No. 5-seeded Irish (25-9, 12-6 ACC) to the Round of 32 with a 60-58 victory over the No. 12-seeded Tigers.
“It was really ugly, but we won,” junior forward Bonzie Colson said. “The object of the game is to win, and we did that. We got to advance and play again.”
With 12:30 left in the game, the Irish had a golden opportunity to put the Tigers away. Junior guard Matt Farrell knocked down a 3 from the top of the key, and on the next possession, Colson slipped a screen to get a dunk and extend the lead to 11 points. Princeton called a timeout, setting up a crucial stretch where the Irish were presented an opportunity to take a commanding lead.
Like it had throughout the first half, however, Princeton refused to go down by double digits and brought the game back within six. With 8:30 left in the game, a 4-point play from Cannady brought Princeton to within five.
Then, two free throws by sophomore guard Myles Stephens brought it to within three.
Later, a layup by senior forward Spencer Weisz brought it to two.
A little later, senior forward Stephen Cook nailed a corner 3 to bring it within one.
But that was as far as the Irish let it get.
Colson swam through his defender to put in a layup with two minutes remaining to put the Irish back up by three. Cannady airballed a 3-point attempt as the shot clock expired and on Notre Dame’s offensive possession, Colson drew a foul and hit both free throws to make it 59-54.
A Princeton layup off an offensive rebound made it 59-56, and the Tigers got the ball back with 20 seconds remaining with a chance to tie.
“I’d love to have a blood pressure monitor on myself during the game. I’m sure it spikes all over the place,” Brey said. “Coaching this group keeps me calm because they have been so poised in close games. They’ve won a lot of games like this, getting down to the wire, having to get a stop, having to make a free throw, getting the ball inbounds with no timeouts. They’ve done that a lot, so I’m a lot calmer with this group because they’ve been poised in endgame situations.”
Princeton’s 3-point shot missed, but the Tigers tipped in the offensive rebound to make it a one-point game.
Farrell received the inbound pass and was fouled. He missed the free throw.
The Tigers dribbled down the court with eight seconds left. Cannady heaved up a 3 from behind the NBA 3-point line, and Vasturia came down with the rebound to secure a 60-58 Notre Dame victory.
“[I was thinking], ‘Don’t go in, please don’t go in,’” Farrell said of Cannady’s final shot. “Especially after me missing a free throw. It didn’t go in, we’re here now, we have another chance to go on. We survived.”
Though the Irish will advance, Notre Dame’s offense looked dead at times in the second half. For more than three minutes in the game’s final 10 minutes, the Irish didn’t score a point.
But Notre Dame’s experience carried the day when it came down to “game situations” — a phrase Brey’s squad is quick to mention.
“I have to be better down the stretch, I took a couple bad shots and I have to make free throws down the stretch,” Farrell said. “But my team was there to pick me up. … We’re a confident group when it comes down to game situations. We were poised, we were confident.”
“We’ve done game situations from the first practice of the season,” Colson said. “We have great leadership that helps the younger guys understand what we do here. It comes down to that sometimes, you’ve got to be patient and really lock in.”
And while the Irish offense struggled in the second half, the Irish defense had to pick up the slack. Notre Dame held Princeton — a skilled 3-point shooting team — to just 25.8 percent on the day at 8-for-31.
“To force them into 8-for-31 is a heck of a job by us. And it’s probably why we won the game,” Brey said. “We even blocked a couple. We got out. I thought our sense of urgency, switching stuff, getting out on shooters, was a key. And, again, I’m really thrilled because this team is a good — this group’s a good defensive group. And we had to win it playing defense.”
The Irish pulled out to an early 9-3 advantage in the first half off of two 3-pointers by Farrell, but the Tigers answered back to tie the game at 11-11 and take the lead at 17-15.
Again, with around eight minutes left to play, Notre Dame tried to make a run with two layups by Vasturia and two back-door cuts by sophomore forward Matt Ryan to make the Irish lead 25-17.
But again, Princeton fought back and found their 3-point form to pull back within three points at 31-28. The Tigers shot 5-of-17 from beyond the arc in the first half, while the Irish made two of their five attempts.
The Irish had a scare with about 12 minutes to play in the first half when sophomore guard Rex Pflueger took an elbow to the head from a driving Princeton player. Pflueger went to the locker room to receive stitches, but returned to the game before halftime and scored four points and dove for a steal.
“I knew I got hit, but I thought it was going to be a shiner,” Pflueger said. “But then I took my hand off my head, and all of a sudden I saw that red stuff come off and thought, ‘Well, have to go get stitches.’”
“If it were anyone else on our team, we would have stitched them, but since he’s from Hollywood, we glued him so he doesn’t as as big of a scar so he can go into the movie business afterwords,” Brey joked. “He’s too pretty, so we can’t stitch him.”
Colson led the Irish at the half with 10 points and finished the game with a team high of 18. Farrell picked up 16 on the game, and Ryan notched six points in the first 20 minutes. Nine Irish players saw the floor in the opening period, and Brey’s squad went into the locker room leading 36-30.
The Irish now look ahead to a clash with No. 4 seed West Virginia on Saturday for a chance at a third straight Sweet 16 berth. And Brey said the close win over Princeton might be just what the team needs to spark another tournament run.
“This feels like beating Michigan, we’ve got guys that beat Northeastern,” Brey said. “I told them, ‘A lot of times in the history of our program, one like this jumpstarts you.’ We’re going to believe in that.”