March 17, 2012

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) – Notre Dame looked set to advance in the NCAA tournament before Tu Holloway got going.

Throw in an unusual call from an official, and the Fighting Irish suddenly were headed home

They lost a 10-point lead midway through the second half, then committed a lane violation on a free throw with 2.8 seconds left to lose to Xavier 67-63 in the South Regional on Friday night.

After Holloway’s go-ahead basket with 21.3 seconds left, the Fighting Irish had a chance to tie the game when Eric Atkins drew a foul while driving into the paint. He made the first free throw, but official Michael Stuart ruled Jerian Grant left his position behind the 3-point arc too early as he ran in for a rebound. That gave the ball back to Xavier, who added two more free throws on an intentional foul call on the ensuing inbounds pass.

The same unusual call was made at a critical moment of top-seeded Syracuse’s 72-65 victory over UNC Asheville during the second round of the East Regional on Thursday.

Coach Mike Brey said the Fighting Irish didn’t lose the game on that call – their 4 of 9 shooting from the free throw line was certainly a problem – but the play still stood out for Grant.

“Just shock and disbelief,” he said. “You always hear that … `You can’t call that at the end of a game’ or it’s just `Let the kids play the game out.’ And it hurts to lose on a call that – I mean, we didn’t lose on that call, but it hurts to end the game like that.”

For Xavier, Holloway finished with 25 points on 10-for-15 shooting, including a flurry that helped the 10th-seeded Musketeers (22-12) rally against the seventh-seeded Fighting Irish (22-12). His final points came when he rounded a screen from Kenny Frease and sent a high-arcing shot over Jack Cooley’s outstretched arm for the 64-63 lead.

Dezmine Wells finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds for Xavier, which advanced to Sunday’s third round. The Musketeers will face Lehigh, which pulled one of two shockers by No. 15 seeds Friday in stunning second-seeded Duke 75-70 in the Blue Devils’ home state and in an arena where they had never lost.

Cooley finished with 18 points on 8-for-8 shooting for the Fighting Irish, who couldn’t slow Holloway in the second half. Notre Dame led 48-38 on Atkins’ 3-pointer with 12:20 left, but Xavier answered with nine straight points to get back in it. At one point, Holloway scored 11 of his team’s 17 points to give the Musketeers a 59-58 lead with 3:43 left.

Grant put the Fighting Irish back up with a 3 with 1:01 left to beat the shot clock, but Mark Lyons scored on the left baseline on the next possession to set up Holloway’s go-ahead score.

Holloway scored 17 points in the second half.

Both teams had to overcome bumpy regular seasons and fight their way out of early season holes just to make it back to the NCAA tournament. Notre Dame lost preseason all-Big East pick Tim Abromaitis to a season-ending knee injury in November and stood at just 11-8 in the middle of January before a nine-game winning streak – starting against unbeaten Syracuse – finally got Notre Dame moving.

Xavier’s fall followed a reputation-destroying brawl in the final seconds of the win against Cincinnati on Dec. 10, which led to suspensions of varying lengths for three of its top players. The Musketeers lost five of six after the brawl, then alternated wins and losses for all of February before solidifying their NCAA bid by reaching the final of the Atlantic 10 tournament.

Both teams needed that kind of fight in the tough final minutes in Greensboro. Notre Dame shot 51 percent while Xavier shot 50 percent, with neither team leading by more than three in the final 5 minutes until Wells’ final free throws.