In 2015, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball team enjoyed one of their most magical March runs in recent history. The Irish, with some spectacular talent in the likes of Pat Connaughton, rolled into the Elite Eight. They drove the mighty Kentucky Wildcats to the brink before valiantly falling, 68-66.
Early in this season, it became apparent that this wasn't the same Notre Dame squad as last season's. With early season bad losses to teams like Monmouth and Alabama, it looked like this might be a recovery year for the Irish.
Given a sixth seed in the NCAA Tournament, coming off a blowout loss to UNC in the ACC Tournament, the Irish were a popular upset pick in the first round, and few people gave them a chance to make it through two rounds.
But somehow, some way, the Irish have used some strong second halves, amazing comebacks, and spectacular finishes to worm their way right back into the Elite Eight.
On Friday, the Irish wrote the latest chapter in this shocking tournament run, stealing the ball three times in the final 12 seconds, sealing yet another stunning comeback win, this time victimizing the Wisconsin Badgers in a 61-56 victory.
Luck Favors The Irish Again In Crazy Final Seconds
Things looked bad for the Irish when they were down 56-55 with just under 15 seconds to go. The Badgers inbounded, but the Irish pressured immediately. Demetrius Jackson snatched the ball for a steal and laid the ball in for a 57-56 lead. The Badgers drove down the court by a layup attempt went wide, and VJ Beachem grabbed the defensive rebound. He was fouled and sunk his subsequent free throws, increasing the lead to a game-high three points. However, the Badgers still had 6.8 seconds to set up a potential game-tying trey.
However, Jackson didn't let them get that chance. Wisconsin's Bronson Koenig, who hit the buzzer-beating three against Xavier, brought the ball up but was stripped by Jackson, who proceeded to sink the clinching free throws. To put a stamp on the shocking comeback, Jackson then snatched a Wisconsin desperation heave for his third steal in fifteen seconds.
Irish and Badgers Go Cold In Defensive-Dominated First Half
It was a good way to end the game for Jackson, who wasn't a factor for much of the game. In fact, it was one of the worst shooting performances all year for the Irish, who were held to just 19 points in the first half, a season-low. At one point, the Irish missed 14 of 15 field goal attempts. However, they played some stingy defense to bail their offense out, staying close in the first half. After 20 minutes, the teams had combined for 42 points, with the Badgers leading 23-19.
The Badgers were mainly led by Zak Showalter, a rare hot-hand in the first half. Showalter finished with 11 points overall, most of those coming in the low-scoring first half.
Notre Dame Scrapes Out Comeback In 2nd Half
Given their first-half shooting performance, the Irish would have been lucky to be down by ten points, but they trailed by just four. However, unlike their comeback win over Michigan in the Round of 64, the Irish did not dominate the second half. Wisconsin continued to play their trademark stiff defense, shutting down Notre Dame's outside shooters. Normally a hot three-point shooter, Notre Dame's Steve Vasturia was held to just two points all game.
Without their three-point game working, Notre Dame was forced to innovate. After Wisconsin jumped out to a 34-26 lead early in the second half, Notre Dame finally began working the ball inside to big-man Zach Auguste who bullied Wisconsin freshman Ethan Happ under the basket. Auguste, who recorded a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds, was critical in drawing several fouls from Happ, who fouled out with a minute remaining. The lack of a big-man presence for Wisconsin allowed Notre Dame to secure some critical rebounds in the waning seconds.
Notre Dame went on an 8-0 run to tie the game, eventually taking their first lead at 38-37. Their run was sparked by Beachem who scored 9 of the Irish's first 13 points of the second half. He had a game-high 19 points to lead the Irish. However, they could not hold the lead as Wisconsin came back again. Not only did they comeback, but the Badgers' lead ballooned back to five points on several occasions. With three minutes remaining, Notre Dame found themselves down 51-46. So, as desperation began to set in for the Irish, they worked the ball back to their spark plug, VJ Beachem. Beachem drilled a three-pointer to bring the Irish right back into the game.
Notre Dame collected a defensive rebound on the other end of the court and brought the ball back up with Matt Ferrell. Ferrell lobbed a pass up to Auguste who came thundering down with a monster alley-oop finish to knot the score at 51-51. Wisconsin got a bucket, but the Irish responded with a pair of Auguste free throws. With 47 seconds left, the game was tied 53-53.
Wisconsin seemed to have hit the back-breaker when Nigel Hayes, who struggled throughout most of the game, knocked down a trey for a 56-53 lead with 28 seconds left. However, Notre Dame drove for a quick layup, setting up the crazy final seconds.
Notre Dame Gets Desired Rematch With UNC
And now, after three crazy comeback wins, Notre Dame gets what they really, really wanted. A rematch with the Tar Heels of UNC, who embarrassed the Irish 78-47 in the ACC Tournament.
So, no, these aren't last year's Fighting Irish. But this year's team has displayed the grit, talent, and magic necessary to make the run to Houston this year. They will play Sunday against the Tar Heels.
Can this bunch of underdogs take it one step further than last year's star-studded squad did?