PITTSBURGH — Mike Brey called it an escape. That’s the word he used, over and over, when talking about it afterward.
His Notre Dame Fighting Irish beat Northeastern 69-65 on Thursday but the Huskies, an underdog by seed and by species, had possession, down two, in the closing seconds. One buzzer-beating swish from three and, bang, the upset would be theirs.
But Northeastern, a 14-seed, couldn’t get a shot off. Turnover — and that’s the word NU coach Bill Coen would use over and over.
“Glad they took the bullet for us,” Brey said upon learning 3-seed Iowa State had been beaten by 14-seed UAB. “And I tell you what, we gave a show the first game of the tournament, didn’t we?”
BRACKET HUB: Box Score
This game was the first to tip off in the round of 64. “Good for ratings, just like CBS wanted,” Brey said with a wry smile. “I’m coachable. But I’m glad that this 3 (seed) escaped.”
Notre Dame has reached the round of 16 just once since 2001. It can get there again with a win against Butler in Saturday’s round-of-32 game. And the Irish, fresh off winning an ACC tournament title, have designs of going on a deep March run.
All that could have gone up in smoke when Northeastern came up the court with under a half-minute to play, down 67-65. The Huskies had no timeouts. They burned clock and then ran a curl play to get David Walker a look from the three-point line, but Walker was covered and passed to Quincy Ford. Again Notre Dame smothered the perimeter and Ford coughed up the ball. That’s when Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste calmly sank a one-and-one with 1.9 seconds left, clinching it.
“I was looking to shoot it, but they did a good job of reading that and so I wanted to keep the ball moving,” Walker said. “And that’s when I swung it to Quincy.”
Three-point shots are often what upsets are made of. But the Huskies missed all four that they took in the second half, including a desperation shot by Walker at the gun that would’ve made no difference. But most painful was the one they never took, death by turnover.
“We had an opportunity to tie the game up or grab the lead in the last possession,” Coen said wistfully. “I think in the NCAA tournament, that’s about all you can ask for. I think what ultimately did us in was we just had way too many turnovers to beat a quality team like Notre Dame.”
Too many as in 16 of them. Points off turnovers tell the tale: ND 17, NU 0.
The Huskies did so much else right. They had 33 rebounds to Notre Dame’s 17. They shot 49.1% from the field. They showed toughness and moxie and fought back from double-digit deficits, including 12 down with 6:02 left. Coen said his team had no “fear factor” playing a big-name opponent on the big stage.
The great upsets are long remembered. UAB becomes part of the March montage. The great near-upsets are largely forgotten, except by the near-heroes.
“I thought our team competed buzzer to buzzer,” Coen said. “They never, never gave in.”
Northeastern’s big man, Scott Eatherton, scored 18 points, though foul trouble limited him to 24 minutes. “If we’re going to pull an upset of this magnitude,” Coen lamented, “we have to have our best player on the floor.”
Notre Dame’s big man, Auguste, scored 25 points, though foul trouble limited him to 27 minutes. “He’s playing at such a high level,” Brey said.
Now Brey hopes for his team to continue at a high level. He pointed out his Irish had a tough first game against Miami in the ACC tournament before beating Duke and North Carolina for the title. He told his players in the locker room, “Let’s see if we can get on a run like we did down there after a hard first game.”
All of that might’ve been for naught if not for the shot that wasn’t.
“We thought our ball pressure could affect them and that — well, it saved us, obviously,” Brey said. “We turned over the last possession to escape.”
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