When Matt Farrell’s missed free throw led to a Princeton break with seconds remaining, Notre Dame’s tournament hopes dwindled for the briefest of moments.
Princeton’s sophomore guard Devin Cannady, a 46 percent 3-point shooter, could not have asked for a better look to seal the NCAA Tournament’s first upset in its opening game, the event’s trademarked 12-over-5 stunner that rattled off the back iron. The Fighting Irish escaped with a two-point win.
“We’ve had an unbelievable run in close games. I think we’re 18-3 in our last 21 overtime games. That shouldn’t happen. The law of averages,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “But we’ve been in so many of them, we really believe, and I think in this tournament, this nucleus of guys, just feel like as this thing was getting close, well, that’s what we did all last year. We just stole wins to get to the Elite Eight.”
Twelve hundred miles south from Buffalo, N.Y., in the East’s Orlando subregional, Virginia followed suit.
The fifth-seeded Cavaliers’ nightmare start — a low-scoring team blessed with the nation’s top-ranked defense falling behind 23-11 to a hot-shooting UNC-Wilmington team — gave way to a second-half nail-biter, a one-possession game with less than a minute remaining requiring key baskets down the stretch. It took a late bank shot from Marial Shayok to slam the door. The Cavaliers escaped with a five-point win. Virginia coach Tony Bennett dubbed it a “scramble game.”
And just like that the Atlantic Coast Conference, the pre-tourney overlords with a nation-high nine dancing teams, avoided early disaster. Scrambling turned into the conference’s afternoon theme.
With star center John Collins and Wake Forest eliminated by Kansas State in the first round, the ACC narrowly avoided a quick 0-3 start before its powerhouses even took the floor.
Both schools relied heavily on their stars in crucial moments.
For Notre Dame, that meant double-double machine Bonzie Colson showing out. In an 83-second stretch with Princeton making its run, Colson came up with a block, a jumper and two made free throws (for a team that missed seven of 21 attempts) to possibly prevent the upset. On a day when wing V.J. Beachem logged just two points on nine shots, Colson stepped up with 18 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal.
“I think we made adjustments in the second half trying to get Bonzie down there,” Notre Dame junior guard Matt Farrell said on playing through the post. “That really helped us getting him in the lane and getting deep position. He’s really tough to guard down there. It’s just about making adjustments. I don’t know if we shot the ball very well, but, like I said, it’s about making adjustments and we did what we had to do to get out of there with a win.”
The same story extended to Virginia with standout guard London Perrantes. As Bennett trotted out a five-guard look to counteract one of the most efficient offenses in the country — something Perrantes said his team had never done before — his point guard finished with 24 points and three assists. The senior guard accomplished all of this while playing through a self-diagnosed stinger in his arm. He also played the role of assistant coach.
“We were having trouble, and we just said, ‘We’ve just got to space and play. Come up with the ball screen, slip the ball screen, space and play, attack. Move it if we have something in transition,'” Bennett said. “We had to get back into the game, try to take good shots, but you needed to be aggressive. They did a good job defensively for a while, but we did it.
“And London, he always has such a good mind, came up with a real good suggestion in the halftime, and we got a quick couple good shots off of that, but space and play was it.”
Virginia’s wildcard entered in the form of Shayok, however, scoring a career-high 23 points off the bench, including what essentially amounted to the game-sealing bucket.
In Thursday’s later games, Virginia Tech already landed a tough matchup in an experienced Wisconsin team, but Notre Dame and Virginia’s experiences should reinforce the need for Florida State to be locked in from the get-go against Florida Gulf Coast — as if Dunk City’s past reputation did not drive home that sentiment enough.
Still, the Fighting Irish and Cavaliers live to play (and, for both coaches, preferably play better) another day. The NCAA Tournament has a mantra for that.