March 28, 2016

By: John Heisler

Notre Dame trails by as many as 13 points against Michigan and for nearly 29 minutes of the game? No problem. The Irish win 70-63 in the NCAA first round.

Mike Brey’s crew behind by five versus upstart Stephen F. Austin with 2:05 on the clock? No issues. The Lumberjacks don’t score again–and the Irish prevail 76-75 on a final buzzer tip-in.

Wisconsin holds the lead for more than 33 minutes and remains on top of Notre Dame by three points with 26 seconds remaining? The Irish handle that one, too. Demetrius Jackson somehow scores six points in 16 seconds and Notre Dame stuns the Badgers 61-56.

Three deficits and three University of Notre Dame men’s basketball victories in the 2016 NCAA Championship. That made the Irish the only program in the country to qualify for the Elite Eight in consecutive seasons.

A fourth marked deficit Sunday night in Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center against East Regional top seed North Carolina?

Well, that one turned out to be too much.

V.J. Beachem, Rex Pflueger and Jackson-the de facto heroes of those respective first three NCAA comebacks-all appeared in their blue uniforms Sunday. But it was the guys in the Carolina blue who won the headlines on this occasion.

It certainly didn’t come by lack of effort on the part of the Irish. For the better part of 30 minutes, Notre Dame matched the Heels bucket for bucket. The crowd came in energized as it watched unheralded Syracuse eliminate top seed Virginia on the big screen in the arena, knowing that now three number-one seeds had been beaten in three straight NCAA regional title games. And, for a while, it looked like the Irish might well make it four for four.

It didn’t take long for fans at Wells Fargo Center to determine this game would feature some phenomenal shot making.

The Tar Heels looked early as if they would put their size and muscle on display. That was borne out on one play when 6-10 Brice Johnson reached over 6-5 Bonzie Colson (who had the inside position) to grab a rebound, make the bucket and draw a foul. The Carolina players in the white uniforms at times looked like the Jolly Green Giants (Brey called them “trampoline guys”), except with Carolina blue trim.

When Zach Auguste drew his second foul at the 14:38 mark of the opening half and went to the bench, Irish fans had to wonder what would come next. (Auguste played only five minutes of those first 20 and finished the game with only five points and three rebounds.) The Irish went small, utilized their “burn offense” with great success and generally made solid decisions with the basketball.

For a time it appeared neither team would miss a shot. Spectators oohed and aahed when Marcus Paige hit a three, Jackson answered with one of his own and then Paige hit another.

How hard would it be to beat North Carolina? The Irish at one stage midway through the first half had hit six of their last eight field-goal attempts and still only led by a point.

Jackson had 10 points in the first 10 minutes, as the Irish went on a 6-0 run in 39 seconds. That forced the Heels to a zone, so Beachem went flying down the left baseline for a windmill dunk to gave the Irish a 29-27 lead.

What did it take for the Irish to achieve a 29-29 tie at the 6:17 timeout? Both Beachem and Jackson had knocked down four of five shots to that point (two of three on threes), and the two rosters combined had connected on 22 of 34 attempts.

Johnson hit North Carolina’s seventh straight field-goal try and it moved to 39-34 for the Tar Heels.

This game bore absolutely no resemblance to what happened 16 days ago when the Tar Heels routed the Irish in Washington, D.C. Brey wasn’t kidding when he said he “misplaced” the tape.

At halftime (the Heels led 43-38) the Irish had shot a glossy 58.3 percent from the floor, including six of 10 on threes. There was only one problem: Carolina was hitting at a 64 percent clip. And the two teams combined for only seven first-half turnovers, so there was no margin for errors.

“I loved where we were at the half,” said Brey. “But after we took the lead in the second half, man, they punched us back.”

Kennedy Meeks, all 6-10 and 260 pounds of him, notched the first three baskets of the second half for the Tar Heels and suddenly the lead became 51-40 for Carolina. The Irish couldn’t buy a point for nearly three minutes and it looked like that might prove lethal.

But the Irish had yet another big-time rally in them. Jackson hit consecutive hoops (the second of those a three) and then lifted an alley-oop pass to Auguste for a dunk and a free throw. The Irish went on an 8-0 run over 1:20. Carolina star Johnson was hit with a technical foul, Steve Vasturia hit a pair of free throws-and when Colson maneuvered in the lane for a soft floater, the Irish led 52-51 with exactly 13 minutes to go.

Carolina came back with a 12-0 run of its own-and ultimately there were just too many big bodies with which to contend for Notre Dame. The Irish went 4:10 without a point and that was enough to create a deficit that was simply too much to overcome.

The critical stats? North Carolina led 32-15 in total rebounds, 13-5 in offensive rebounds, 23-6 in second-chance points, 42-30 in points in the paint.

“We couldn’t secure that first miss and that hurt us,” noted Brey.

Carolina coach Roy Williams kept running in fresh bodies of the 6-9, 220-pound variety. The Heels shot at a .615 clip for the game-and that was enough to offset 26 points by Jackson and 18 from Beachem (they both made the all-tournament team). The Chapel Hill crew simply had too much firepower, scoring on 19 of 20 possessions after the Irish took the 52-51 lead.

“Can Brice just miss one?” Brey requested.

Still, for long stretches the action had fans of both schools on their feet.

Irish veteran A.J. Burgett had a ringside seat for it:

“It was a heck of a game,” offered the senior forward. “We took our time and didn’t rush it. We felt like at the ACCs (when Carolina won by 31 in the semifinals) we played at their pace. Tonight when we had a break, we pushed it, but if not we held it and ran our offense. We executed and it seemed to work for 35 minutes of the game.

“It was unreal in the first half the way both teams shot it. I thought we’d end up slowing the tempo and it would end up a low-scoring game like the Wisconsin game, but then neither team tonight would miss a shot.”

For Brey’s part, he loved the way this group competed, especially given the expectations coming off a year ago when Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton nearly fueled an upset of Kentucky in the regional final in Cleveland. And he loves the idea that there now are a bunch of guys on his roster who know what winning games in the NCAA Championship is all about.

“Last year I said I was honored to coach that group and that I’d never feel the same about another team,” said Brey. “But I felt even better about this group given the expectations they had.”

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.