DAYTON, Ohio – Look what the First Four came up with.
Twelve ties, 17 lead changes, two overtimes.
The team that shot 51 percent, that had a rebounding edge of 12, that hit a driving layup at the buzzer of the first half, and a critical 3-pointer with eight seconds left in the first overtime, and a crucial 3-pointer with 22 seconds left in the second overtime... that team lost: Rutgers.
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That’s because the other team was even better at clock brinksmanship. A driving layup with two seconds left in the first overtime. A follow-up layup with 1.4 seconds left in the second overtime. That team won: Notre Dame.
A truly magical drama.
The winning layup just in front of the buzzer came from Paul Atkinson Jr., a graduate student transfer from Yale who didn’t even play last season because the pandemic shut down the Ivy League. In Notre Dame's ACC tournament loss to Virginia Tech last week, he had only five points. Wednesday night, he had 26. He scored the biggest Notre Dame basket in years at 12:02 a.m.
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It had just turned St. Patrick’s Day.
HAPPY ST. PATRICK’S DAY BABAYYYY ☘️— Notre Dame Men's Basketball (@NDmbb) March 17, 2022
“Maybe,” coach Mike Brey would say later, “there was a little bit of karma there.”
Could the most gripping game of the NCAA Tournament have happened the second night of the First Four, before 60 teams had even taken the court? Maybe not, but there won’t be many ranked above it when the nets are cut down on April 4.
“If there’s a better game in the NCAA Tournament,” Brey said, “I gotta see it.”
You could tell how special it was by the joy of the winners.
“I haven’t felt like that in a long time,” said Atkinson, who was on Yale’s NCAA Tournament team in 2019. “It’s amazing. Bunch of cameras on you, big spotlight, last game of the night. Got family in the stands. Couldn’t ask for anything better.”
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It was 12:14 a.m. – with the 89-87 final score still on the scoreboard while the University of Dayton Arena was emptying – when some of the Irish came out of the locker room with cellphones and started taking pictures of the Notre Dame fans who had remained to celebrate. A few of the players mingled in the crowd. They had a plane to catch west. They were due to play Alabama in San Diego in 40 hours. But this moment was too good not to savor.
“This is a mature group,” guard Cormac Ryan said. “And we know what’s ahead of us.”
You could tell how special it was by the deep regard Brey had for the opponent his team had finally just beaten.
“They’re really good," he said of Rutgers. "And tough. And fearless.”
And you could tell how special it was by the anguish of the losers.
“It’s just upsetting, it’s devastating, it’s heartbreaking. It’s all of the above,” said Ron Harper Jr. “It’s March Madness. That’s what makes it so special. Just sucks to be on the wrong end of it.”
Steve Pikiell’s emotions: “As I said to them in the locker room, I wish I could coach them forever.”
This was the perfect send-off to the NCAA Tournament that reaches full speed Thursday. But could it mean even more? The Irish had gathered at Brey’s house Sunday to ponder their selection in the First Four, and this was his message: “We’re going to try to channel UCLA.”
He meant recent history. The Bruins went from the First Four to the Final Four last spring. Know how they got out of the First Four? By beating a Big Ten team in overtime. Michigan State.
By the early hours of St. Patrick’s Day, the UCLA echo from 2021 was too obvious to miss. “So I’m going to damn sure convince them over the next 48 hours or 36 that it’s our time,” Brey said.
He has willing listeners. The Irish are 23-10 after a season that has included 12 games decided by five points or less. Brey said that journey has considerably toughened his team mentally.
“We don’t quit, and I think you saw that,” Ryan said. “Our fight, you can’t really teach that. It’s contagious. And we got it.”
They’ll need it Friday, after the long trip and quick turnaround for Alabama.
“Sleep is overrated.”— Notre Dame Men's Basketball (@NDmbb) March 17, 2022
See you in the early morning, San Diego. ☘️ pic.twitter.com/ZEPpMbv5dm
“Can’t wait,” Ryan said.
“What he said,” Atkinson seconded.
“My quote was let’s use Dayton as a springboard,” Brey said. “And I will continue to say that for the next five hours in the air to San Diego.”
The First Four did its job. Cut 68 teams to 64. Wednesday night, it did more than that.