PHILADELPHIA — Nobody at Wells Fargo Center was particularly happy with what they saw through the first 30 minutes of Notre Dame's Sweet 16 showdown with Wisconsin Friday night.
Not head coach Mike Brey and his Fighting Irish, who fell behind by nine after slogging through a dreadful first-half offensive performance. Not the Badgers and head coach Greg Gard, who failed to bury Notre Dame early despite copious opportunities.
And certainly not the fans, who just wanted to see the ball go through the basket a few times, but instead suffered through a collective 29 percent shooting effort in the opening half.
A steady push out of the halftime intermission from Notre Dame resulted in a 34-34 tie with 10:13 left to play, and it was a classic slugfest from there.
The Irish got big shots from V.J. Beachem and big plays from Demetrius Jackson down the stretch to steal another NCAA Tournament game at the last second, winning 61-56 and booking a second straight trip to the Elite 8.
Notre Dame moves on to meet the winner of Friday night's Indiana-North Carolina game on Sunday for a spot in the Final Four in Houston.
“We've been in this situation a lot — we kind of like playing from that hole,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. “So I don't want to over-coach it.
“I don't want to be up five with five minutes to go on Sunday. I won't know what to do.”
Senior center Zach Auguste flushed an alley-oop from sophomore guard Matt Farrell to tie the game at 51, and Auguste later made two free throws to knot it at 53 with 46 seconds remaining.
Notre Dame trailed by one with less than 15 seconds left, and its hopes appeared to hinge on whether the Badgers could miss some free throws. But Jackson stripped Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes — who was trapped after receiving the inbound pass — and quickly dumped in a layup for a 57-56 Irish edge.
“The ball just came to me, so I had an easy layup on that one,” Jackson said.
Suddenly the Badgers had to rush, and their next shot was off the mark. Beachem snared the rebound, and made both ensuing free throws for a three-point lead. The stage was set for Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig to make another clutch shot, as he did to lift the Badgers in their second-round game against Xavier.
Jackson mugged Koenig near half-court and secured Notre Dame's second straight improbable victory with two free throws. Brey warned his players they had a foul to give prior to Jackson's second game-changing play, so Jackson was free to be as aggressive as possible in harassing Koenig.
“I think we've really been able to rely on our defense late this whole postseason,”Jackson said. “We've done a great job executing defensively, getting stops when we need to. … Guys just really stepped up in a big way and I'm just really happy to keep it rolling, keep it going.”
Beachem continued his tournament tear with 19 points to lead the Irish while adding three steals. He hit two jump shots in the final 11 minutes to keep the Irish within two points.
“No one in this tournament is playing better than V.J. Beachem,” Brey said.
Jackson had 16 points, six assists and three steals, and senior center Zach Auguste finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds despite being outplayed by Wisconsin's redshirt freshman Ethan Happ much of the night.
Happ, who fouled out in the final minute, turned in 14 points to pace Wisconsin. The Badgers were denied their third straight Final Four appearance and finished the season 22-13.
The first half was a forgettable experience for both sides, which combined to shoot 16-for-55 in the period. Notre Dame was lifeless until the closing stretch, when a Farrell 3-pointer and a jumper from Bonzie Colson cut the Irish's margin to four while Wisconsin struggled through a four-minute scoring drought.
At one point late in the opening half, the Irish had missed more than three times as many shots as they made.
Farrell was the only Irish player to make more than one shot from the field in the first 20 minutes, and held the team-high with seven points going into the locker room. Notre Dame committed seven first-half turnovers, but the Badgers couldn't capitalize often enough, scoring just two points off of them.
The Irish finished with 12 turnovers and escaped with the victory despite being out-rebounded 36-32.
After a cringe-worthy half, the Irish were joking around during the halftime break. They had only scored 19 points, but they were only down by four.
“I said, 'How bad are we playing?' And we kind of laughed about it,” Brey said. “I said, 'We'll all play better. Relax.' And we did.”
One more win separates the Irish from their second Final Four berth in school history.
"It always seems like we just find a way to win — and we can't lose on Good Friday," Farrell said. "We just found a way, and we've done that the past couple games. … That's special to have for a team."
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