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Notre Dame Basketball

California Dreamin': Notre Dame outlasts Rutgers in epic 2-OT NCAA tilt

March 17, 2022

DAYTON, Ohio – Forget luck, and any St. Patrick’s Day narrative after Wednesday night bled into Thursday morning here inside University of Dayton Arena, erstwhile site of the NCAA Tournament’s first four games.

Enter determination. Grit. A sheer will to prevail.

Oh, plus the most significant rebound – offensive or otherwise – for Notre Dame basketball in a half-decade or longer.

Beaten on the boards all night, Notre Dame got the one that mattered when Paul Atkinson Jr. gathered Blake Wesley’s miss inside the final five seconds of the second overtime, kissed his putback off the glass and celebrated as Rutgers’s desperation heave went awry – finally.

NCAA Tournament First Four finale, after two halves, two overtimes and 90 total minutes: No. 11 seed Notre Dame 89, No. 11 seed Rutgers 87.

“Blake, I saw him drive to the rim, and I knew he was going to go hard and try to get fouled or make a bucket,” said Atkinson, who anchored the Irish with 26 points and six boards. “I just wanted to follow, chased after the ball and got it up and got the bucket.”

Got the right to advance.

Notre Dame (23-10), which was scheduled to depart Dayton around 1 a.m. Thursday morning and fly to San Diego, faces No. 6 seed Alabama Friday afternoon in West Region Round of 64 action.

“To play like that and to advance, I’m thrilled and I’m really proud of our group,” said Irish coach Mike Brey, who halted his five-year drought from the NCAA Tournament with this season’s ACC runner-up finish. “They deserve it, man. Prentiss (Hubb), Dane (Goodwin), Nate (Laszewski), they’ve chased it together since last year. We’ll get our legs under us by Friday afternoon, but we’ll need some time to do that. …

“It’s neat to see your kids celebrate. They’ve dreamed about getting into the tournament and dreamed about advancing in the tournament.”

Those dreams were fraught with peril throughout much of this contest, which featured 17 lead changes and a dozen ties.

But that last lead change, the one that capped the 90-minute epic that saw Rutgers (18-14) rally from down five late to force the first overtime and then the Irish get a driving bucket from the freshman sensation Wesley with just 2.7 seconds left to force the second bonus session, proved enough for Notre Dame to overcome the combined 45 points from Ron Harper Jr. and Caleb McConnell. The Scarlet Knights also commanded a 44-32 rebounding edge.

It was Atkinson and Laszewski who teamed for 44 Irish points and dozen rebounds in 70 combined minutes on the floor. Wesley and Dane Goodwin combined for 20; Hubb and Trey Wertz jointly dished out 11 assists without a single turnover. 

Notre Dame trailed by five at the break, 41-36, and, with the game tied at 58-all, engineered a 5-0 run that nearly proved enough for the Irish in regulation.

But a Laszewski 3 – he made two triples, four free throws and had a massive offensive-rebound putback late – just went awry to deny the Irish a more comfortable edge.

That’s when Geo Baker, Rutgers’s senior point guard, nearly ended Notre Dame’s season. Baker scored seven-straight points and hit back-to-back clutch buckets – a deep 3 and a fade-away jumper – in the waning moments of regulation.

Yet, Notre Dame – in so many close games this season that Cormac Ryan said Brey had joked with the team that it was “addicted” to these late-game situations – never relented.

Ryan himself had a defining play. The Irish trailed and, out of a timeout, elected to press Rutgers with less than a minute on the clock. Ryan stole an inbound-pass intended for Harper, knifed to the basket and briefly lifted the Irish to a 77-76 edge.

After Harper’s banked-in 3, Wesley’s drive coerced a second overtime.

The final bonus frame never saw the teams separated by more than three points – Hubb calmly hit both free throws for an 87-84 lead with 40 seconds left – and Harper’s second improbable 3, this one from deep on the right wing, nearly brought a third overtime.

Atkinson then gave the Irish the last of their 58 points in the paint, and in the process made their foreshadowed packing efforts worthwhile.

“I think soaking it in, being excited is great, but this is a mature group,” said Ryan, who finished with 16 points, three steals and two boards in a team-high 46:13 on the court. “We know what’s ahead of us. We’re prepared for it. We were ready for it.

“We came into this game packed for San Diego. So, we’re on to next one. And we’re fired up and we’ll be ready.”

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