PHILADELPHIA — As Mike Brey, stubble-faced and open-collared, sat in a folding chair addressing a media scrum outside his Notre Dame team’s locker room Friday night, attention quickly turned to his lower half. The right leg of his pinstriped black suit pants was bunched at his knee, under which a bag of ice was taped liberally around his exposed calf. He’d strained the muscle, he said, leaping in response to a play during the second half of his team’s 61–56 win over Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. He spent the remainder of the game limping, at first fearing he’d injured his Achilles’ tendon.
“I just got a little excited,” Brey said. “I can’t jump around like the old days. I think I need to sit down a little more on Sunday.”
Friday was a night when little looked pretty for the Fighting Irish, from their coach’s gait on down, but they too can look forward to Sunday nonetheless. Notre Dame’s win over the Badgers began as a slog, its star guard cold and clanking, then transformed into a thriller in which the star reclaimed his expected role as hero. It saw a team known for its offense put up unsightly stat lines, with its supporting cast offering crucial lifelines to remain afloat. And yet it ended just as the Irish’s two prior NCAA tournament games had, with Notre Dame emerging on the right side of bitten nails and surviving to move on, limp be damned.
“We’ve been in game situations where we’ve taken punches and we’ve really bounced back,” said junior guard Demetrius Jackson. “Today was just another display.”
Added forward Bonzie Colson: “As coach says, this team is destiny ... What can we say? We won on having tough plays, digging in on the defensive end, scoring on the offensive end. An ugly win’s still a win.”
And did it ever begin ugly. The Irish had come into the game wary of Wisconsin’s half-court defense, hoping to push tempo enough to minimize its impact. Instead, Notre Dame were bogged down in one drawn-out half-court set after another, coming up empty. Jackson and forward Zach Auguste combined to miss 10 of their 12 first-half shots; guard Steve Vasturia missed all four of his. At one point the team combined to make one field goal in the span of 14 attempts.
“Sloppy,” said sophomore Matt Farrell. “Real sloppy.”
Among the few bright spots was Farrell, a once sparingly used guard (and two-star recruit from central New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia) inserted into the starting lineup for the tournament. He entered Friday having used just 14.4% of the Irish’s possessions while on the floor and taken just 12.1% of their shots. He entered halftime with a team-high seven of Notre Dame’s 19 points, on 3-of-4 shooting.
“I just tried to be aggressive, tried to attack them off the dribble,” Farrell said. “That’s something we’ve been preaching on, getting into gear.”
For the rest of the Irish that gear was elusive; aside from Farrell, the team shot 4 for 25 (16%) in the first half. The Badgers were hardly a juggernaut themselves (34.6%), taking a 23–19 lead into the break that had observers cracking jokes about a contagion having been left on the court by its usual occupants, the NBA’s woeful 76ers.
In the locker room, the Irish found their own humor. “We laughed,” Brey said. “I said, ‘How bad are we playing? ... We’ll all play better, relax.’”
Said Farrell: “We were excited about how we played defensively ... We knew we didn’t shoot the ball well, but we’re never worried about that. Our shots are gonna fall.”
By the first half’s standards, the second was a shootout, with the teams combining for 15 points in its opening four minutes. The Irish soon found another hot hand in junior V.J. Beachem, who spent last March falling out of Brey’s rotation and has spent this one as his leading scorer.
“Right now he’s a very confident guy,” Brey said of Beachem, who finished with a game-high 19 points. “Nobody in this tournament is playing better than V.J. Beachem.”
The Badgers were buoyed by their own March-to-March turnaround story, Ethan Happ, who redshirted last season and on Friday nearly had a double double through his first 18 minutes of a physical battle inside with Auguste. But his night would end early: With the Badgers leading by two (after a putback by Happ) and a ball loose on the floor with 46 seconds left, Happ was whistled for his fifth foul. He wandered over to the Wisconsin bench, hands folded atop his head, until sitting and burying his face into a towel, a picture of frustration. He would spend the finish as a spectator, watching Auguste make two free throws to tie the game.
Soon he had reason to cheer: Vitto Brown hit a three that put Wisconsin ahead with 26 seconds left, but it would not last long. On the other end, Jackson—at that point he was just 4 of 16 from the floor—drove quickly for a layup and cut the lead to one. Then came the game’s crucial play: an inbound pass in the corner to Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes, who was promptly trapped by a pair of pressing Notre Dame defenders, knocking the ball loose. Colson, ignoring an order from Jackson to get farther up the court, knocked the ball loose. Asked about the pivotal sequence after the game, Colson said, “I kind of blacked out.”
The ball found its way to Jackson, who converted his second layup in five seconds. “It kind of fell into my arms,” Jackson said, “and I just wanted to put it in and finish it.”
After a Wisconsin miss and foul and ensuing free throws put the Irish ahead three with seven seconds to go, Jackson would finish it another way, prying the ball from Badgers point guard Bronson Koenig, who in turn fouled him. “If I did get called for a foul, it wasn’t going to be that big of a deal,” said Jackson, noting that the Irish had another foul to give. “So I just wanted to be aggressive.”
At the free-throw line, Jackson made both to ice a game in which he’d spent 39 minutes cold as could be. “He’s the toughest, strongest—in my eyes—point guard in the country,” Colson said. “He’s been through a lot. He knows what it takes.”
Wisconsin too had been through a lot in a season that now ended later than almost anyone had expected. The Badgers’ rollercoaster has been well-documented: longtime coach Bo Ryan’s midseason retirement; the slow start under a promoted Greg Gard, whose father died on the eve of the season; a 9–9 record turning into an 11–2 regular season finish; a buzzer beater from Koenig last Sunday to reach the second weekend.
“We’re in the position where everyone told us we wouldn't make the tournament, let alone be in the Sweet 16,” Hayes said. “Not to say I’m satisfied, I really do believe we, you know, should have won this game. We have the better team. We didn’t play well enough, had too many turnovers, but all in all, I’m proud of the team.”
Notre Dame now reaches its second Elite Eight in as many years, after losing a thriller to then-undefeated Kentucky a year ago. It is a chance for the school’s first Final Four in 38 years, since Digger Phelps roamed the sideline. Standing its way is a North Carolina team that throttled the Irish by 31 in the ACC tournament, in what Brey called a burn-the-tape loss. Reclining outside the Irish locker room, he did not yet know his team’s draw, but he did not seem concerned about how his team would respond to falling behind yet again.
“We kind of like playing from that hole, I don’t wanna overcoach it,” Brey said. “I don’t wanna be up five with five minutes to go on Sunday. I won’t know what to do.”