Notre Dame got down and dirty with perimeter defending on a day when its flashy offense was not flowing.
The Irish took away Princeton’s best strength – its three-point shooting – and escaped with a 60-58 victory in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at KeyBank Center.
It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t easy.
Princeton missed a three-point attempt to tie with 18 seconds left and another for the lead with 3 seconds left.
But the 14th-ranked Irish (26-9) did enough to advance to Saturday’s second round.
“First game in the tournament, got everybody ready, gave everybody a show,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.
Notre Dame held Princeton to just 8 of 31 on three-point attempts – 25.8 percent. The Tigers this season averaged 10 threes a game (10th most in the nation) and hit 38.3 percent behind the arc (47th best in the nation).
“To force them into 8 for 31 is a heckuva job by us, and it's probably why we won the game,” Brey said. “We even blocked a couple we got out on. I thought our sense of urgency switching stuff, getting out on shooters, was a key. Again, I'm really thrilled because this group's a good defensive group. We had to win it playing defense because we weren’t in a great flow offensively, and some guys didn’t shoot it as well as they’d like.”
“That was our main focus, getting them off the three, because they can really shoot,” said Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson. “I thought we did a really good job there making them drive and make tough decisions.”
Good thing for the defense. Notre Dame’s point total tied its second lowest of the season, and the Irish got only 12 points on threes. The Irish averaged 78 points a game this year, including 28 a game from three-pointers.
The fact the game plodded along wasn’t a shock. Princeton ranks 336th out of 351 teams in the nation in tempo, averaging 62 possessions per 40 minutes. Notre Dame is 220th in tempo.
There was just one fast-break basket the entire game.
But there was drama.
Princeton (23-7) stayed in the game by limiting possessions and defending well in the second half, holding Notre Dame to just 32 percent shooting the last 20 minutes.
A three-pointer by Steven Cook with 3:12 left pulled the Tigers within 55-54.
Notre Dame was clinging to a 59-56 lead when star point guard Matt Farrell missed a pull-up jumper with 25 seconds left.
Cook missed a wide-open three-point shot with 18 seconds left but center Pete Miller scored on a rebound put-back.
Farrell was fouled and missed the front end of a one-and-one free-throw opportunity.
Princeton star guard Devin Cannady’s three-point try from about 25 feet missed with 3 seconds left.
Notre Dame, which reached the Elite Eight each of the past two seasons, is used to testing its fans nerves. The Irish are 8-3 this season in games decided by five points or fewer.
“We’ve had an unbelievable run in close games,” Brey said. “I think we're 18-3 in our last 21 overtime games. That shouldn’t happen. The law of averages.”
“But we've been in so many of them we really believe,” Brey said. “And I think in this tournament, this nucleus of guys just thinks that as this thing’s getting close, that’s what we did all last year. We just stole wins to get to the Elite Eight. . . . Our guys really believe that because they’ve experienced it, which is huge.”
Survive and advance.
“I think we’re a very confident group when it comes down to game situations,” Farrell said. “We’ve been a lot in the past, especially in the conference that we play in. We’ve got a lot of guys that are poised.”
Notre Dame got 18 points from Colson, its 6-foot-5 power forward. Farrell scored 16 and senior forward Steve Vasturia had 10.
Princeton, which saw its 19-game winning streak end, got 15 from senior guard Spencer Weisz.
“I thought we weren’t really sharp for the majority of the game,” said guard Steven Cook. “We’ve been playing a lot better for the majority of the year. And at the end, we started to get back to our old ways and get some stops and make some shots.”