March Madness didn't start with an upset, though the opener came down to the final seconds as No. 5 Notre Dame survived a late push to defeat No. 12 Princeton 60-58 in Thursday's West Region battle from KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York.
Notre Dame (ranked 23rd in RPI at ESPN.com) took a slow approach to counter Princeton's prowess from deep, though late mistakes and missing seven free throws almost made the Fighting Irish the first upset victim of the bracket. Juniors Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell led the way with 18 and 16 points, respectively.
As ESPN Stats & Info pointed out, Notre Dame doesn't play the upset victim often, even if it does try its luck:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
In the last 3 NCAA Tournaments, Notre Dame is now 7-0 as the higher-seeded team; Irish’s losses in that span have been to No. 1 seeds.3/16/2017, 6:21:51 PM
Princeton (RPI 50), in its first tournament appearance since 2011, had the second-best chance at an upset among No. 12 seeds, according to ESPN Stats & Info. But hitting just eight of 31 attempts from deep nullified 15 points from Spencer Weisz and 11 from Steven Cook.
Strong defense (Notre Dame's 60 points tied its second-lowest total of the season) kept Princeton in it all the way, but an inability to convert on a strength cost the Tigers, including in the closing moments:
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
So close Princeton... https://t.co/9oznyDy66C3/16/2017, 6:23:48 PM
The Fighting Irish entered with plenty of confidence as the only team in the bracket boasting back-to-back appearances in the Elite Eight. The fact that their appearance in the ACC championship game took place in New York was a bonus.
"We delivered under bright lights and played well enough even though we couldn't finish and get the championship game," head coach Mike Brey said before Thursday's game, according to the Associated Press (via FoxSports.com). "We had our March swagger."
Notre Dame boosted this confidence in the first half via a stark change in approach to counter the Tigers, slowing it down and taking high-percentage looks, as Josh Verlin of City of Basketball Love explained:
Josh Verlin @jmverlin
Notre Dame typically takes about 40 percent of its shots from deep. So far today: 27 shots, only 5 from deep (18.5 percent).3/16/2017, 4:54:42 PM
Not that Princeton entered lacking a swagger of its own. The Tigers went 1-5 against the RPI Top 100 during the regular season but rattled off 19 straight wins on the way to the Big Dance.
The live-and-die approach from deep that had the Tigers dancing was apparent in the first half. A 36-30 deficit at halftime was only made better by the fact they shot 5-of-17 from range as Weisz led all scorers with 11 points. Improve from deep and an upset was reasonable.
Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News highlighted the disparity between the risky ways of the upset-hungry underdog and the smooth demeanor of the favorite:
Jerry Sullivan @ByJerrySullivan
Notre Dame shot 14 of 30 in first half (46.7%). Princeton was 12-for-32 (37.5%). Tigers only 5 of 17 on three-pointers. Need to be better.3/16/2017, 5:08:23 PM
Observers got the sense much would hinge on halftime adjustments by the Tigers.
But Notre Dame came out with a slow pace as usual, benefited from more poor shooting by the Tigers and stretched the lead to double digits.
John Templon of NYCBuckets.com illustrated the worsening issue for the underdog:
John Templon @nybuckets
Princeton is in big trouble here. Notre Dame doesn't play fast either. Unless those 3s start going down this one might be over.3/16/2017, 5:32:55 PM
Were the game a Hollywood script, someone would have flipped a switch and had Princeton start knocking down shots from deep.
At one point, it sure looked that way as Devin Cannady converted a four-point play:
NCAA March Madness @marchmadness
4-point play! #MarchMadness https://t.co/sqAQz33Ata3/16/2017, 5:50:04 PM
More than anything, though, Notre Dame permitted the Tigers some wiggle room to gun for a comeback, struggling to hit free throws. The Fighting Irish hit 79.9 percent from the line during the regular season yet had issues down the stretch.
Compounding the issue was turnovers. Notre Dame coughed up five in the second half while Princeton surged back.
Princeton did use the wiggle room to pull within one point and found itself down three with about 20 seconds left. ESPN Fantasy Sports dropped some much-needed context for those with brackets at stake:
ESPN Fantasy Sports @ESPNFantasy
No. 5 Notre Dame was chosen to beat No. 12 Princeton in 80.79 percent of Tournament Challenge brackets. Up 3 with 19.7 seconds remaining.3/16/2017, 6:12:26 PM
Funnily enough—and fitting for the opener to the madness—Notre Dame missed a free throw while up one, only for Princeton to miss a game-winning try from deep.
The Big Lead's Jason McIntyre summed up the final seconds well:
Jason McIntyre @jasonrmcintyre
80% FT shooter for Notre Dame misses, Princeton comes down, misses a 3 and Notre DAME survives. Exhale. 59-58 Irish. No cover3/16/2017, 6:19:31 PM
Notre Dame advances to encounter the winner between No. 4 West Virginia and No. 13 Bucknell, which will produce a new matchup this season regardless of the winner. The Fighting Irish, after a big opening win in Buffalo, won't alter much from the proven approach now.
Predictably, Notre Dame had a sense of relief and budding confidence after surviving the scare.
The Associated Press' Tom Withers relayed Brey's comments after the game:
Tom Withers @twithersAP
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey: "We've been in games like that. I'm really proud we're still alive."3/16/2017, 6:33:39 PM
Withers also captured the reaction of Colson: "No matter how it looked, we got the win, and that's all that matters."
Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson also met with the media:
Princeton Tigers @PUTIGERS
Mitch Henderson talks about the battle @Princeton_Hoops gave Notre Dame. Tigers end the season 23-7, 14-0 Ivy, inaugural Ivy tourney champs. https://t.co/T7wSAnCPV33/16/2017, 7:03:23 PM
According to Zach Gelb of Fox Sports Radio 920, Henderson "was pleased" with Cannady's game-winning attempt. Cannady also discussed it:
Zach Gelb @ZachGelb
"I thought the shot was going in." Devin Cannady on his shot at the end.3/16/2017, 6:46:13 PM
Weisz talked about his team's upset bid: "We gave it our all, and I'm proud of the guys."