The most intriguing matchup of the Sweet 16 didn’t live up to its billing. Notre Dame shot 56% from the field and 47% from three-point range Thursday in beating Wichita State, 81-70, to earn a spot in the Elite Eight.
While Wichita State didn’t get much offensive production from players not named VanVleet or Carter, it lost this game on the other end of the floor. Despite rating out as one of the better defensive teams remaining in the field, the Shockers simply could not slow down Notre Dame’s high-powered offense. To wit: the Irish rang up 1.23 points per possession.
The first five minutes hinted at the outcome of the game. Notre Dame opened with a flourish, opening up a 13-point lead thanks to a trio of three-point shots from guards Demetrius Jackson and Pat Connaughton and two-point field goals from center Zach Auguste. The Irish’s third-ranked efficiency offense had ignited, and Wichita State seemingly had no means to stop it.
The Shockers quickly found their bearings and began narrowing Notre Dame’s deficit. After a layup from Auguste around the 15-minute mark, Wichita State ripped off a 9-2 run. Then Shockers guard Ron Baker drilled a three-point shot to slice the deficit to six and, about a minute later, hit another trey to make it a one-possession game.
Notre Dame weathered Wichita State’s charge, and a Connaughton jumper at the 3:40 mark put the Irish up by eight points. But the Shockers finished the half on a strong note, with guard Fred VanVleet scoring seven points over the final three and a half minutes.
VanVleet and forward Darius Carter helped the Shockers take their first lead (38-37) of the game early in the second half. After Notre Dame’s Jackson and Steve Vasturia scored a jump shot and a layup to give the Irish a five-point lead, Carter maneuvered inside for two two-point buckets and VanVleet knocked down a pair of free throws.
Notre Dame answered decisively. In the next two-plus minutes, the Irish showed why they boast the nation’s third most efficient offense. Jackson drained two threes and converted a layup, Vasturia buried a trey of his own, and guard Jerian Grant and forward Bonzie Colson finished layups. When the run ended, Notre Dame led by eight and seemed on track for a comfortable win.
Another offensive onslaught a few minutes later effectively sealed the game. Grant sank a three, Auguste connected on two two-point field goals, Vasturia and Connaughton also converted from downtown and Jackson made two free throws to put Notre Dame up 19.
This marks the first time Notre Dame has reached the Elite Eight since 1979. The Irish have now won 32 games this season, the second most in program history. Meanwhile, this is the fourth consecutive year Wichita State has reached the tournament, and the third consecutive year in which it has won at least one game.
As impressive as it was for Notre Dame to pull through against a Wichita State team that ranked among the nation’s top 20 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, don’t expect the Irish to advance to the Final Four. Barring a massive upset on Thursday night at the hands of No. 5 seed West Virginia, Kentucky will meet Notre Dame in the Elite Eight.
The question of whether the Irish are a good or bad matchup for the Wildcats misses the point, because there is no team that matches up well against Kentucky.
It’s disappointing that Wichita State won’t get an opportunity to face the Wildcats. While the Shockers may not have been able to beat the Wildcats, anyone who watched the two teams play a thrilling game in the Round of 32 last season would have welcomed a rematch.