It had that familiar upset feel to it. After all, there has been very little to separate a 12th seed from a No. 5 in recent years. Over the previous nine years, the 12s had been 17-19 against the 5s. As any dedicated NCAA tourney fan knows, when desperate for an upset, head to the 5-12 line in the bracket.
Princeton was game, too. Ivy League teams generally are. The Ivies had gone 5-7 in the tourney the last seven years, winning all of them as an underdog. They came to Buffalo on a 19-game winning streak and were unintimidated by having to face a first-round opponent from the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference.
But on the day before St. Patrick's, the Fighting Irish were a hair much for the Tigers. Notre Dame, the only team to advance to the Elite Eight of the last two seasons, held off Princeton for a 60-58 victory and moved on to Saturday's second round against the West Region (yes, the West) at jam-packed KeyBank Center.
The Irish led for almost the entire game, but began to unravel down the stretch and Princeton had a final chance after Matt Farrell missed the front end of a one-and-one with 12.8 seconds left. But Devin Cannady missed a three-pointer and the Irish survived.
It was a battle of similar teams, fundamentally sound squads that make a lot of three-pointers, don't commit many turovers and are vulnerable on the defensive interior. The major difference was that the Fighting Irish attempted only 11 threes Thursday. The had a difference-maker in Bonzie Colson, an undersized power forward who one of the dominant inside players in the ACC.
Colson, a 6-5 junior, had 18 points and seven rebounds. He came in averaging 17.5 points and 10.2 rebounds a game. He also shoots 40 percent from three-point range. That's a rare combination of hoops skill, especially for a player in the best conference in the country. For us old school guys, it brought to mind one of the great 6-5 scorers ever -- Adrian Dantley.
The question was how effective Colson would be after turning his ankle against Duke in the ACC title game last weekend. He seemed tentative early and left a few minutes in, but was a force inside as the first half wound on.
Colson had 10 points, four rebounds and two assists in the opening 20 minutes as the Irish -- a six-point favorite -- took a 36-30 lead. There was a telling sequence late in the half when he drew a double team, opening a driving lane for teammate Rex Pflueger to score
Notre Dame nursed a six- to nine-point lead for much of the second half before Princeton made a run. The Tigers moved within two, 53-51. on a Spencer Weisz drive with 4:45 to play. At that point, you began to sense that familiar tourney feeling, when a favorite is pressing, an underdog is hanging tough, and the neutral crowd smells the upset.
The Irish kept forcing shots, failing to get good looks inside, and the Tigers kept coming. Steven Cook scored to cut it to one, 55-54, with 2:34 left, and Princeton got the ball back with a chance to go ahead. But after an Amir Bell airball, Colson scored from a foot away to restore the Irish lead to three, 57-54.
Princeton had the ball, down three, with 20.4 seconds left. Steven Cook missed a three-pointer, but Pete Miller tipped it in, pulling Princeton within one. Notre Dame called timeout and got the ball in to Farrell, who was fouled with 10.6 seconds to play in the second half.
Farrell missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving Princeton one last chance. But Devin Cannady missed a three from the left -- Princeton's 23rd missed three of the day -- and the Irish held on.