Notre Dame is rolling — right into the history books.
For the first time in 37 years, the Fighting Irish are headed to the Elite Eight after knocking off NCAA Tournament darling Wichita State 91-70.
Led by sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson’s 20 points and senior forward Pat Connaughton’s 16 points and 10 rebounds, three-seed Notre Dame downed the Shockers at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Thursday night.
“We really do a great job sharing the ball, finding a great shot every possession,” said Jackson postgame. “The guys step up and make huge shots. It’s a really fun way to play when we play the game that way so we want to continue doing that and continue getting better.”
In a total-team effort, Notre Dame (32-5) proved to be too much for gritty seventh-seeded Wichita State (30-5). The sharpshooting Irish drilled an astounding 75 percent of their shots in the second half (18-of-24).
After winning 11 of their last 12 games, the Shockers found themselves down by as many as 13 in the first half; however, the Shockers responded with a 15-5 run of their own, cutting the Irish lead to 33-30 going into the intermission.
Wichita State junior guard Fred VanVleet’s game-high 25 points and senior forward Darius Carter’s 20 were not enough to allow the Shockers to escape with a victory.
The nation’s most efficient offense in Notre Dame is now 26-2 when leading at halftime and 19-0 when scoring 80 points in a game.
“That was reminiscent of a lot of games we’ve been in, second halfs, it kind of reminded me of the North Carolina game in the ACC championship, we take the lead, call timeout, not a lot of drama, not a lot of strategy, and we come out of that with a great will, continue to defend and then we got into one of our offensive rhythms that nobody else in the country can do,” said Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey.
A mentality shift at halftime proved to be the difference for the Fighting Irish, who scored 40 points in the second half.
Senior guard Jerian Grant added nine points and 11 assists of his own while advancing to the regional final. The Wooden Award and Naismith Trophy finalist has played every minute of Notre Dame’s NCAA tournament run this season.
“Just figuring how they were playing me, it took longer than I would have liked but once I figured out how they were guarding the ball screens and denying me up top, we really got into a rhythm to play our game,” said Grant about his team’s second half success.
In critical moments late in the second half, Connaughton hit a 3-pointer from the corner and sophomore guard Steve Vasturia made a 3-point jumper of his own moments later to seal the victory, stretching Notre Dame’s lead from 11 to 17, 73-56, with 5:18 remining.
The Irish made nine 3-pointers, with Jackson drilling 4-of-5 from downtown.
“Extremely important,” said Connaughton of what that stretch meant to the outcome of the game. “We always talk about not being satisfied, whether it’s with a win or whether it’s just a possession in general.
“For us to not be satisfied with an 11 point lead because there was so much time left, they’re a fabulous team and they make runs and they can score in bunches just like us. We want to make sure that we continue to play our game, and when you have an open shot, you know with these two guys to my left and right, they’re the best at finding you and getting you open shots so you just have to step up and knock them down.”
Connaughton, a pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles minor league system has now played 138 games for the Fighting Irish, setting a school record.
Notre Dame defeated Northeastern and Butler by a combined seven points during the opening weekend of the tournament, where expectations have been high for Coach Brey’s team, even coming off a 15-17 season last year.
The 2014-15 ACC champion Fight Irish will play perennial favorite and unbeaten Kentucky on Saturday night in the regional final.
To beat the powerhouse – a consensus choice as one of the best college teams ever – and move onto their first Final Four appearance since 1978, Brey says he will continue to do what he has done throughout the season.
“One of the biggest qualities is do not overcoach your team when they’re rolling. Don’t call out too many — let them figure it out. This nucleus really knows how to play on the offensive end.”