Irish survive Rutgers in double-overtime thriller, advance to round of 64
Liam Coolican | Thursday, March 17, 2022
DAYTON, OHIO — It simply wasn’t going to be anyone else. After a 26 point performance in which he shot 13-15 from the field, it had to be Paul Atkinson Jr. who made the winning basket with less than two seconds remaining. His layup capped a thrilling double-overtime victory for Notre Dame over Rutgers. The Irish won 89-87 in the First Four on Wednesday night in Dayton, Ohio.
“I haven’t felt like that in a long time,” Atkinson said. “It’s amazing. Bunch of cameras on you, big spotlight, last game of the night…couldn’t ask for anything better.”
The game was a back-and-forth battle throughout, featuring eight ties and nine lead changes. “We have an unbelievably gritty group. We don’t quit,” senior guard Cormac Ryan said. “So proud of how we played and battled, and our fight, you can’t really teach that. It’s contagious.”
It was Ryan who stepped up time and time again, especially on the defensive end, in what was arguably his best game of the season. He locked up Rutgers star Geo Baker at the end of regulation to force overtime. And, in the first overtime period, with the Irish down by a point and less than 30 seconds remaining, he leaped to steal Rutgers’ inbounds pass, and immediately laid the ball in to put Notre Dame back in front. He also was instrumental on the offensive end – adding 16 points, including 11 in the second half and overtime.
“Sometimes in basketball things go your way,” Ryan said of the steal in the first overtime. “I woke up this morning, I slept great, breakfast tasted great, I got the Wordle in two guesses. So sometimes you got a little bit of luck.”
It wasn’t smooth sailing throughout for Notre Dame, however. The Irish entered the locker room at halftime trailing 41-36. They struggled from beyond the arc (2-7) and to get to the free-throw line in the opening half. They had just three free throw attempts — all coming on and-one opportunities — and missed all three. However, the Irish were dominant down low, led by Atkinson who had 16 points in the opening frame. As a team, the Irish scored 30 of their 36 first-half points in the paint.
Still, they struggled to slow down Rutgers, specifically guard Caleb McConnell, who had 18 points in the first half. McConnell — the Big Ten defensive player of the year — was not known to be a threat on the offensive end of the floor. He came in averaging just 6.5 points per game.
Freshman guard Blake Wesley struggled to adjust to the bright lights early, scoring just four points on 2-8 shooting in the opening period. Wesley finished the game with eight points on 4-17 shooting but came through down the stretch for the Irish. He scored with two seconds remaining in the first overtime period to tie the game, and in the second, he set up Atkinson’s winner by driving to the basket and drawing two defenders. He missed the potential game-winner, but Atkinson was able to crash the boards and give the Irish the win.
“I love what we did at the end,” head coach Mike Brey said of the winning play “We weren’t going to call a timeout. Our guy that can get to the lane the best, we came up and had two ball screens for him, and he distorts things. He turned the corner and somebody had to help, and Paul cleaned it up great.”
The second half continued to go back and forth between the two sides. Notre Dame took their first lead since midway through the first half on a Wesley layup with 9:05 to go. They retained that lead for most of the last ten minutes, but Baker scored Rutgers’ last nine points of regulation and eventually tied the game at 67.
Senior forward Nate Laszewski grabbed an offensive rebound to put the Irish back in front with 2:00 left, but Baker hit a turnaround jumper and tied the game once again. Unsurprisingly, the ball was in his hands with a chance to win the game for the Scarlet Knights, but Ryan was all over him, and his shot bounced harmlessly off the rim.
It appeared the Irish would have to foul at the end of the first overtime period after a potential game-winning shot from senior guard Prentiss Hubb was knocked out of bounds. But Ryan leaped high in the air, stealing the inbounds pass, and laid the ball in to give the Irish the lead. The lead wouldn’t last, as Rutgers hit yet another three to take a two-point lead, but Wesley came through for Notre Dame, tying the game at 79 with two seconds remaining.
It was the Atkinson show in the second overtime — he scored six points in the game’s final 2:30, including a put-back slam that temporarily gave the Irish the lead. Rutgers All-American Ron Harper Jr. banked in an improbable three with 22 seconds to play, tying the game at 87, but Wesley drove to the basket, setting up Atkinson for the game-winner which sent Notre Dame to the round of 64.
“They deserve it,” Brey said. “They’ve just been an amazing group to coach. They’ve chased it since last year.”
Notre Dame now faces a remarkably short turnaround — the team must now fly across the country to face sixth-seeded Alabama in San Diego Friday afternoon. The Crimson Tide will be well-rested — they haven’t played since falling in the second round of the SEC tournament last Thursday — but Brey believes his team can use Wednesday’s victory to build momentum.
“Anytime you win a game in this thing, it’s huge,” Brey said.