March 16, 2017
By John Heisler
The tea leaves said these teams looked identical.
Both Notre Dame and Princeton had hit high percentages of three-pointers, committed precious few turnovers, almost always made the extra passes and knocked down free throws as well as any other teams in the country.
Early afternoon Thursday at KeyBank Center in first-round NCAA Championship action, it was Notre Dame’s tea leaves that finally blossomed green (maybe in anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day Friday?) and Princeton’s that barely wilted at the very end in the cold and snow in Buffalo.
Notre Dame’s 60-58 triumph after Princeton’s Devin Cannady missed a three-pointer with three seconds to go suggested it didn’t come easily.
That old survive-and-advance NCAA mantra couldn’t have been more prophetic.
“Lot of guys that like to shoot that J,” said Irish coach Mike Brey pregame. “We’ve gottta be up on them and not sunk back in. This is a big-time read awareness game. Let’s get it to one and done and get on down the floor and make them play us.”
The Irish got a pair of three-pointers in the first four minutes from Matt Farrell, but Princeton bounced back with a 6-0 run to take a 17-15 lead at 11:26-as Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem combined to miss their first six shots.
Then the Irish went on a 10-0 run of their own, finishing on a Matt Ryan dunk at 6:19, as the Tigers missed eight shots in a row and made only two of 13 over one stretch.
Notre Dame built a solid 23-14 rebounding edge, helping the Irish notch 22 points in the paint (and seven second-chance points to none for the Tigers) in the opening half. Princeton connected for five threes but managed only 37.5 percent shooting overall. Both teams, not surprisingly, had two first-half turnovers.
At the halftime break, Brey offered, “I love what we’re doing offensively with the low-post stuff. Our driving opportunities at the right time have been really good. They’re a gifted offensive team. We guard that every day in practice. They’ve made five (threes). Let’s see if we can get out there and chase them off that thing a little more. Don’t get mesmerized on a long possession and you cheat too much to a help situation. We need to send a message to start this half.”
Notre Dame benefited from three straight defensive stops to begin the second session, and Princeton did not score until nearly four minutes into the half. The Tigers committed three turnovers in a 2:01 span and Bonzie Colson’s dunk at 13:46 gave the Irish their largest lead at 45-34.
But not a single thing came routinely after that. The Irish turned it over themselves four times in three minutes, though Notre Dame connected on four of five shots to keep it a seven-point advantage at the under-eight timeout.
Princeton missed a first chance to tie when Will Gladson was off on a wide open three attempt at the 5:31 juncture after the Irish misfired on four shots in a row.
Brey’s crew made only one of its final 10 field-goal attempts (a Colson layup at 2:07 to push Notre Dame ahead by three). Vasturia (eight rebounds) and Beachem (six rebounds) combined to nail only four of their 21 shots-but Colson finished with 18 points and seven rebounds on a gimpy ankle and Farrell had 15 points (making six of nine shots, three of five from the arc).
Between Colson’s status and Rex Pflueger taking six stitches in the first half from an elbow to the forehead, Brey for a millisecond thought maybe it wasn’t going to be Notre Dame’s day.
Notre Dame made only seven of 22 shots after intermission (half the number of field goals the Irish had in the first 20 minutes).
Princeton’s Steven Cook missed a potential tying three-pointer at :18 and teammate Pete Miller tipped it in-and the final miss by Cannady’s (after an earlier air ball and shot-clock violation at 1:32 with Notre Dame up three) came after Farrell’s shot fell off at the 11-second mark.
The Irish held Mishawaka product Cannady to seven points on two-of-11 shooting (two of 10 from three-point land). Cannady’s Tigers led for all of 17 seconds all day, but they proved particularly tough to put away.
Said Princeton coach Mitch Henderson: “I thought that shot (Cannady’s final attempt) has gone in an awful lot for us. It was a great look. I think we tried to get to the rim, but I thought Notre Dame, they’re smart, they’re tough. They don’t really put anybody on the floor that doesn’t have a ton of experience. And I thought that was the story of the game–they had a lot more experience in this moment, and it showed.”
Notre Dame’s defense helped Princeton shoot only .258 from deep (eight of 31), with the Tigers attempting five more threes than two-point shots. The Irish survived by making the little plays when they counted most-while turning it over only six times (the same number as Saturday night against Duke and fewest since the season opener in November).
After it ended Brey said this to his team: “Defense did it. Defense did it. Our numbers kept them under 40 (percent) even from the three-point line. We chased them off stuff. Our defense helped us advance. We’ve been in so many like that. We were really poised.
“You gotta win a hard first one. Remember Northeastern two years ago and Michigan last year? You win a hard one and it jumpstarts you for a run. Great poise.
“We need to get our legs under us and get ready for the next one. We’re in the championship of the Buffalo Invitational.”
In the end, the details mattered little. Princeton’s 19-game win streak hit the skids.
The Irish will be back to check the tea leaves again and play Saturday for a third straight shot at an NCAA regional appearance.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com.