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BROOKLYN — Demetrius Jackson’s eyes lit up as he leaned forward in a chair inside Notre Dame’s locker room and recounted the play that ended with teammates bounding around the court inside Barclays Center, reveling in another wild finish in this NCAA tournament.
“I wanted to go downhill,” he said smiling, despite the repeated requests from reporters to explain the same thing. “I wanted to be aggressive.”
In the final minute of No. 6 Notre Dame’s game against No. 14 Stephen F. Austin, Lumberjacks star Thomas Walkup drove the ball hard at Irish guard Steve Vasturia. He drew contact and then lofted a floater that didn’t even draw iron, but two Stephen F. Austin players, sophomore Ty Charles and senior Clide Geffrard, were there to try and corral the miss. Instead, they tipped it over the rim, and Irish forward Zach Auguste snared the rebound and dished the ball to forward V.J. Beachem, who promptly dribbled it into the secure arms of Jackson. He gripped the ball firmly with two hands and pounded it with his left hand three times before crossing half-court.
As Jackson approached the three-point line, Auguste began positioning for a ball screen, and when Jackson made his move, Trey Pinkney—a 5'9", 160-pound senior of whom, days earlier, SFA head coach Brad Underwood said, “as good on-the-ball defender as I've been around in my time as a coach”—needed to hook Auguste’s left thigh just to keep up. Jackson blew by Geffrard and met Walkup just outside the restricted area. He rose and maneuvered the ball away from Geffrard before flinging it at the rim. Way off.
“Probably not the best shot in the world,” Jackson said in reference to the missed layup that preceded the final scramble around the basket.
Auguste secured the rebound and tossed it back up as he fell backward, but the ball bounced off the back of the rim and fell to the right. It was in that moment that Rex Pflueger, a 6'6", 198-pound guard with volleyball experience, a 38-inch standing vertical leap, according to Notre Dame’s strength coach, and a reputation as a defensive specialist, became, for the time being, the most beloved freshman in South Bend, Ind. He rose, extended his right hand and tipped the ball off the glass for the lead. By the time it fell through the hoop, the Lumberjacks had 1.5 seconds left to concoct a miracle. They could not.
“Rex, the young guy, was able to come in,” Jackson said as he wound toward the end of a detailed breakdown of the decisive play, “and tip the ball in.”
Notre Dame will savor its 76–75 win over Stephen F. Austin not only because it sent the Fighting Irish to their second straight Sweet 16 for the first time under the current NCAA tournament format, nor because of the exhilaration of a game-winner in the final seconds. More than anything else, they’ll savor this game, in which Notre Dame was favored by only 3.5 points, because of how unlikely it seemed that the Irish could actually win it. The Lumberjacks had absorbed Notre Dame’s strongest blows, knocking down timely shots and getting stops to stay within striking distance of a team that led the ACC in offensive efficiency during conference play.
And when they scored seven consecutive points for a five-point lead, there was little reason for optimism beyond the prodigious talent possessed by one, and only one, player in uniform.
“It was going to be a theft if we got it,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.
The Irish needed something, anything, from Jackson, and he delivered by setting in motion the sequence that culminated in Pflueger’s only bucket of the game.
“Unbelievable experience,” Notre Dame sophomore guard Matt Farrell said. “Unbelievable win.”
In this NCAA tournament—where a popular national championship pick is stunned by a nondescript program from Conference USA; where a program located outside the contiguous United States can topple an outfit with multiple projected NBA lottery picks; where a No. 11 beating a No. 6 is the expected outcome; and which, in the first round alone, produced 10 wins by double-digit seeds and 13 results that qualify as upsets—perhaps the only characteristic that distinguishes greatness from an ocean of just-O.K. was on display Sunday afternoon.
Jackson is a player few teams can reasonably expect to contain. He is capable of hoisting the Irish past an opponent they otherwise have no business beating, of willing his teammates up hills they’re not expected to ascend.
“He’s kind of our catalyst,” Vasturia said of Jackson. “And makes us go.”
After arriving at Notre Dame as the No. 33 prospect in the class of 2013, according to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index (RSCI), Jackson shared a backcourt with at least one other dominant playmaker and shot-taker: Eric Atkins in 2013–14, Jerian Grant in ’14–15. That changed this season after Grant was selected in the first round of last summer’s draft. It was incumbent upon Jackson to take the scoring and facilitation he’d done in a complementary role as a freshman and sophomore and expand it as a junior. With opponents focused on shutting him down, Jackson would need to learn how to navigate more intense defensive coverage while serving as the Irish’s primary source of offense.
He’s managed the added responsibility about as well as expected. Though Jackson is shooting lower percentages inside and outside the three-point arc, he’s assisting on a larger portion of his teammates’ baskets (15.9% to 24.8%), drawing an average of one more foul per 40 minutes, according to kenpom.com, and converting at a better clip from the free throw line (74.5% to 80.9%).
“It’s much different from having Jerian out there,” said Jackson, who’s ranked higher on the latest DraftExpress 2016 mock than all but two other players left in the tourney (Buddy Hield, Brandon Ingram). “And so I was able to learn and watch what Jerian did and learn from him and just try to help this team in a similar fashion.”
Said Brey of Jackson, “It’s his show now. He’s the voice. He’s the quarterback.”
On Sunday, Notre Dame’s demand for brilliance from its transcendent point guard was more acute than usual. The Irish had been held below a point per possession in three of their final five games before the tourney (they scored 1.15 PPP against Michigan in the first round, but the Wolverines are woeful defensively), and Stephen F. Austin had suffocated teams all season long with an aggressive scheme predicated on turnover creation. The Lumberjacks lead the nation in forcing giveaways on 25.9% of opponents’ trips down the floor, and rank 21st nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. For Notre Dame to advance, it would need to solve a unit that two days earlier forced No. 3 seed West Virginia to cough the ball up 22 times and record only 0.80 PPP.
Brey conceded that the Irish basically couldn’t run their typical offense and needed to make instinctual plays on the fly.
“You weren’t running sets today,” he said.
From the moment Jackson buried a three from the left corner to give the Irish their first lead to the drive that inspired Notre Dame fans to erupt in joy, he was a problem for Stephen F. Austin. He created off the dribble and finished at the rim, drew contact and converted at the free-throw line, found open space and drilled deep jumpers and, most memorably, delivered a thunderous dunk that roused the crowd and left Pflueger motionless. On a day in which the Irish had to effectively abandon the plays that gave ACC opponents fits all season, Jackson was an elixir of sorts.
“He’s just been so huge for us this season,” Vasturia said of Jackson, who finished with 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
In the locker room after the game, as players laughed and spoke with reporters, Jackson conveyed a relief that reflected the the breadth of their accomplishment. A Notre Dame team that lost two of its top three scorers from last season, cannot consistently get stops (ranked 172nd nationally in adjusted points allowed per possession) and was obliterated (78–47) in its final game before the NCAAs has advanced to the second weekend, having overcome two quality opponents with disparate styles.
“We took punches,” Jackson said. “And we just kept fighting.”
The Irish are moving forward, and if Jackson doesn’t slow down, they may not, either.