Notre Dame makes return run to Elite Eight
Alex Carson | Friday, May 13, 2016
Back in November and December, it looked unlikely Notre Dame could climb back to the Elite Eight, where it finished the previous season.
The Irish (24-12, 11-7 ACC) dropped two of three at the Advocare Invitational over Thanksgiving break, falling to Monmouth and Alabama, and blew a 16-point second-half lead against Indiana at the Crossroads Classic on Dec. 19 in Indianapolis. And after early conference losses to Virginia and Pittsburgh, Notre Dame sat just 10-5 overall and 1-2 in the ACC.
But a week after that Pitt loss — a rare home defeat for the Irish — they went on the road and got their season back on track in a 95-91 win at then-No. 9 Duke on Jan. 16. Sophomore forward Bonzie Colson led Notre Dame off the bench that day, scoring 31 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, as Notre Dame did enough to get their fourth win in the last five tries over the Blue Devils.
“We got enough defensive stops to get out of there,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said after the win. “ … [It was a] great day of growth for us early in the season.”
It was one of a handful of defining moments for the Irish in 2016. But the biggest ones came in March, during the NCAA tournament.
At halftime of Notre Dame’s first-round showdown with No. 11 seed Michigan, things looked bleak for the Irish. They trailed 41-29 at the break in Brooklyn, New York, and it looked like they were headed toward resurrecting the program’s trend of early tournament exits.
“[The halftime] conversation started nice and calm, and then I just started to lose it a little bit,” Brey said March 18. “As far as, ‘I love you. You’re great guys, you have done everything we’ve asked, but either you’re gonna be a little tougher or this is gonna be another North Carolina game all over again. But everyone’ll pat you on the back because you’re nice guys and you get good grades.’”
But it wasn’t another outing like Notre Dame’s 78-47 ACC semifinal loss to the Tar Heels, as the Irish opened the second half on a 22-7 run to take a 51-48 lead. The Wolverines stayed in it, though, and with four minutes to play, the game was tied, 59-59.
That’s when junior forward V.J. Beachem stepped up and led Notre Dame to the win. He hit a 3-pointer, then followed it up with another bucket to put the Irish ahead 64-59 en route to a 70-63 win over the Wolverines. That first-round game was Beachem’s coming-out party, as the Fort Wayne, Indiana, native went 7-of-7 from the field for 18 points.
“All of them were open shots, so we just had great movement, and the guys found me when I was open,” Beachem said that night. “I was just able to step up and knock them down.”
The late game drama in the tournament was far from over for the No. 6 seed Irish, though. After 14th-seeded Stephen F. Austin pulled an upset of No. 3 seed West Virginia in the first round, Notre Dame had a golden opportunity to return to consecutive Sweet 16s.
But again, it needed a comeback to get it done.
In a game that was tight throughout, Notre Dame held a seven-point lead with nine minutes to play, in prime position to put the upstart Lumberjacks away. But senior guard/forward Thomas Walkup wouldn’t let his Stephen F. Austin team go away lightly, drawing the game even with a handful of minutes to play before pushing his team ahead in the closing minutes.
With just two minutes left, the Lumberjacks led 75-70.
But Notre Dame didn’t panic.
Junior guard Demetrius Jackson hit a layup with 1:34 left, drained two free throws with 47 seconds to play and after the Irish got a third successive stop defensively, looked to win the game for Notre Dame.
He drove, with the game on the line, but his wild shot didn’t come close. Senior forward Zach Auguste, who was a perfect 8-for-8 from the field, grabbed the rebound and tried for a put-back, but he too was unable to get the job done.
But it was freshman guard Rex Plueger, who hadn’t scored all day, who was waiting to tip in the game-winner with 1.5 seconds left to send Notre Dame to the Sweet 16 in a 76-75 win.
“I just saw the ball come off and I just attacked it, and luckily it went in,” Pflueger said March 20.
“I can’t thank Rex enough for finishing that,” Auguste said. “The ball was missed, I went up, was aggressive on the glass, tried to draw a foul and got some contact, missed my layup. Then I fell, and I just see the ball go through the net and I look and it was Rex, the one that tipped it in, and I couldn’t believe it.”
The improbable finish landed Pflueger a spot on CBS’s tournament-ending “One Shining Moment” montage and earned the Irish a trip to Philadelphia for a Sweet 16 showdown with seventh-seeded Wisconsin on March 25.
That night, it looked like Notre Dame may have run out of magic. With the game tied 53-53 and 25 seconds on the clock, Badgers junior forward Vitto Brown hit a 3-pointer to put his squad ahead late.
But as soon as Brown’s shot went through the bucket, Jackson led late-game heroics once more. He got a quick bucket with 19.3 seconds left to close the gap to one, and when the Irish applied some defensive pressure, Wisconsin couldn’t handle it.
Colson stripped Badgers junior forward Nigel Hayes after the ensuing in-bounds pass, and Jackson picked up the ball and scored to put Notre Dame ahead, 57-56, just 11 seconds after they went behind. After Beachem grabbed a defensive rebound and hit two free throws, Jackson got another steal, Notre Dame’s 10th of the night, and hit two of his own from the charity stripe to seal the 61-56 win.
“We had a really aggressive trap, and then Bonzie made a great defensive play, getting his hands on it,” Jackson said that night. “It kind of fell into my arms, and I just wanted to put it in and finish it. … I just wanted to be aggressive defensively, just trying to get a steal and win the game, trying to make a game-winning play.”
The win moved the Irish onto the Elite Eight, where once more, they’d see their season come to an end at the hands of a No. 1 seed — this time, it was to North Carolina, 88-74.
It looked like Notre Dame had a chance when it used a 12-0 run to pull ahead 52-51 with 13 minutes to play, but the Tar Heels showed a ruthless efficiency down the stretch — scoring 37 points on their final 19 possessions — to take the double-digit win and keep Notre Dame from its first Final Four in nearly 40 years.
“They pounded on us, they got second shots, they made big shots,” Brey said March 27. “Didn’t they tip one in off the back of their freaking head now that I think of it? When something like that happens, you go, ‘You know, it’s been a good year.’”
For a team that lost two stars, Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, to the NBA, a return to the Elite Eight was a tough task.
“We had a lot of pressure on us with what we were able to do last year,” Jackson said. “So to be able and come back this year with all that weight on our shoulders … I think it’s good for us to establish our own identity and get back there.”
Though Notre Dame didn’t top North Carolina in the tournament, it did beat the then-No. 2 Tar Heels at home Feb. 6, coming back from a 15-point deficit to top the eventual national runners-up 80-76.
Notre Dame’s calculus to a win that night was simple: 20 offensive rebounds, 31 made free throws and just two turnovers were the keys to an upset win that left the Purcell Pavilion floor filled with students not long after the final buzzer.
“One thing I’m really proud of, our program, when we’ve been under the bright lights and the big stage, we have flat out delivered,” Brey said that night. “Flat out delivered. GameDay again here, and I’m really proud of our program, and I’m so proud of this group. They’ve played in some big ones, and they find a way to really deliver. Couldn’t be happier for them.”
A Feb. 13, 71-66 win over then-No. 13 Louisville effectively punched Notre Dame’s ticket to the NCAA tournament, where Jackson and Beachem put in performances good enough to make the NCAA’s All-East regional squad. Both juniors declared for the NBA Draft following the conclusion of the season; Jackson hired an agent, ending his eligibility, while Beachem pulled himself out of the draft May 1, deciding to return to Notre Dame for his senior season.