Notre Dame’s run of heart-stoppers during March Madness continues

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Here’s the simplest NCAA Tournament advice I can give you: Find out when Notre Dame is going to play on Friday, and be absolutely certain you watch the Fighting Irish.

“Are you kidding me? Are you freakin’ kidding me? That was unbelievable,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said after the Irish beat Stephen F. Austin 76-75 on a last-second tip-in. “God, that was fun.”

So much fun. Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament can only be fun, and it’s fitting, because Brey’s one of the most affable coaches in the sport. His team is an automatic dramatic automon in team form. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s favorite college team has become the most reliable, watchable, dramatic group in the NCAA Tournament over the past two years. Their past six games have been decided by an average of less than five points, with four of the six being decided by one, two, three and four points.

The one-pointer came on Sunday, when Notre Dame stole the game from the best No. 14 seed in the history of the tournament, Stephen F. Austin. They held a five-point lead with 95 seconds to go but did not score from then on out. The loss was SFA’s first in 82 days.

“It was gonna be a theft if we got it,” Brey told CBS Sports. “There’s no question it was going to be a flat-out theft. To be where you were, up [five] and couldn’t finish it, had some turnovers. But it was going to be a theft. What’s neat about this group: Because this nucleus learned how to advance in crazy games last year, and Friday night, they really are calm and figure out and believe they’re going to figure it out. I can’t coach that. That has to be earned through experience.”

Notre Dame has loads of it. The Irish’s 68-66 loss to Kentucky in the 2015 Elite Eight was the best game of that tournament. It also needed overtime to get past Butler in the second round, winning 67-74.

“Northeastern too!” Brey said, referencing Notre Dame’s close-shave win that kicked off the field of 64 last year. “I think CBS and Turner and the NCAA love us. Remember when they told Rocky, ‘Give ’em a good show’? We’re a good show. We’re in a dramatic games, we’ve won most of them, and I don’t know what it is. I just love the fact that, in dramatic games with high energy, we really believe we can finish, and that’s a great trait to have.”

It’s incredible how this team — which just became the first Notre Dame group in the modern tournament era to reach back-to-back Sweet 16s — has found a way to thrill, over and over. Even the Michigan win on Friday was crazy. Notre Dame rallied and won by seven … and it still was one of the three or four best games of the first round.

Rex Pflueger turned into the hero on Sunday. He popped in for a second rebound, tipped in the winning shot with 1.5 seconds to go and brought this building to an incredible dichotomy. The Notre Dame-led din was forceful, but happened just as air was siphoned out from everyone else who was convinced SFA was going to move on.

“I actually had a similar experience where I missed it in my high school career, and I always wish I got that back,” Pflueger said. “So now that this has happened, it’s made up for it. … It was a tip-in too, same exact kind of situation that I missed it, and we ended up losing that game.”

Pflueger didn’t even expect to be in that spot at that moment. He was expecting Zach Auguste to be there for any second or third efforts.

This has become a charmed team. In some ways, one of the luckiest, but you make your luck in March by earning it with work in the 11 other months of the year.

“My pregame speech was: We have our March Madness mojo back,” Brey said. “After Friday night, I saw it in the second half against Michigan. We had that look like, We’re gonna get it. Somehow. It’s gonna be crazy, but we’re gonna get it. And tonight was even crazier.”

Brooklyn makes for such an amazing NCAA Tournament site. The building was packed, and New York City’s locale allows for so many sidewalk alumni to get in and support. Notre Dame’s huge base was battling with everyone else in the building who was pushing for Stephen F. Austin. Had the Lumberjacks won, that team and its senior stud of a star, Thomas Walkup, would have become the best story of this tournament.

“Not much, but god I have the utmost respect,” Brey said of discovering who Walkup was this weekend. “I don’t think we’ve played against, in a number of years, a guy with a better feel for the game. His feel for the game is more like a seven- or eight-year NBA guy.”

That is extremely high praise, and Walkup earned it. The whole team did. Stephen F. Austin was an incredible group; it proved it belonged not only in this tournament but in the second weekend. Someone’s gotta lose, though.

“We put the ball in Tom’s hands, and I’ll do it again every single time,” SFA coach Brad Underwood said. “I’m going to live and die with that young man.”

Stephen F. Austin dies, but we’ll remember this team and how great it was. Notre Dame just keeps giving us reasons to watch. There’s no doubt the next one is going to be entertaining and probaby one of the best games on Thursday or Friday. Luck of the Irish? Nah. This is just another example of how the NCAA Tournament always creates reasons to keep us coming back.

Notre Dame's Rex Pflueger was the hero Sunday. (USATSI)
Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger was the hero Sunday . (USATSI)

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