PITTSBURGH (AP) — Notre Dame coach Mike Brey’s calls to his mother Betty during the season focused little on her son’s well-being and more on the state of his team.
“Very rarely did I get ‘Hey, Mike, how you doing?'” Brey said. “It’s like ‘Have you got them ready? Are they ready? I think we can beat Duke, Mike.’ It’s unbelievable. She was intense.”
It came with the territory for Betty Brey Mullen, an Olympic swimmer who briefly held a butterfly world record and instilled in her three children the tenacity they carry with them. Brey relied on it heavily on Saturday night, guiding the Irish to a thrilling 67-64 win over in-state rival Butler in the NCAA Tournament and a spot in the Sweet 16.
Brey took the floor just hours after Betty died in Florida at the age of 84 following a heart attack. If Brey is being honest, he still was in shock at tip-off but responded by doing what he’s done since he slipped out of swimming practice for basketball camp when he was 9: he hung in there.
“It was kind of a tribute to her,” Brey said. “It was really a special night.”
One that ended with the surging Irish (31-5) in the regional semifinals for the first time since 2003.
Jerian Grant scored 16 points for Notre Dame, including the clinching layup with 18 seconds left to put an abrupt end to Butler’s latest NCAA Tournament run.
Steve Vasturia led Notre Dame with 20 points. Demetrius Jackson added 13 points, and Zach Auguste had seven points and 13 rebounds for the Irish, who beat the Bulldogs for the first time in 26 years.
While Notre Dame rejoiced in the locker room, its coach made plans to travel to Florida on Sunday to celebrate his mother’s life and watch Wichita State and Kansas play. The winner faces the Irish on Thursday in Cleveland.
Brey called his mother, a member of the 1956 U.S. Olympic team and later a swim coach at George Washington University, “an unbelievable woman, a woman ahead of her time and probably the real driving force behind everything I’ve done.”
Including leading Notre Dame to its deepest tournament run in a dozen years.
The ACC Tournament champions are used to tight games. They didn’t blink when Butler did what Butler always does this time of year: rally from an early deficit to push a higher-seeded opponent to the brink.
Just not over it.
“We had the game where we wanted it,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said. “We just weren’t able to make enough plays there late.”
Roosevelt Jones played through an injured left knee while scoring 23 points for Butler (23-11), but the Bulldogs never led in the extra session after missing on two chances to win in regulation. Notre Dame senior guard Connaughton slammed Dunham’s shot from the corner into the ground and senior center Kameron Woods couldn’t convert an out of bounds alley-oop at the buzzer.
Connaughton shouted “not tonight” after his block. And he was right.
Connaughton snapped a 59-all tie with a 3-pointer from the right corner. Kellen Dunham got the Bulldogs within a point with two free throws, but the Irish drilled their sixth — and last — 3-pointer of the game when Vasturia knocked down a shot from the same spot as Connaughton.
Grant — a senior who missed most of the 2013-14 season due to an academic issue — then split the defense and laid it in with the shot clock nearing zero.
“We made big plays down the stretch, we’ve been doing that all year,” Grant said. “We’re playing with a lot of confidence right now. We want to keep it rolling.”
The two schools separated by 147 miles of Indiana highway met regularly from 1908-95, but had played just once in the last 20 years, a win by the Bulldogs in the preseason NIT in 2006.
The balance of power between the programs has shifted mightily in two decades. The Bulldogs are a March fixture with a pair of memorable national title game appearances since 2010 alone. The Irish have been modestly successful under Brey, but have struggled to translate regular-season wins into lengthy tournament stays.
The Irish promised this spring would be different. They shot their way to an improbable ACC Tournament title, beating Duke and North Carolina behind an efficient offense and an ability to limit mistakes.
It’s a formula that has worked for Butler during its rise from mid-major marvel to newly minted citizen of the rejiggered Big East. The Bulldogs overcame the abrupt departure of coach Brandon Miller in October with gritty, grind-it-out defense and a relentless commitment to rebounding.
Notre Dame led by as much as 10 in the first half but the Bulldogs would not go away. Wearing reams of tape, compression pants and an unwieldy brace, Jones kept finding open space to get Butler back in the game.
Butler: Jones said he would have to be “tackled” to be kept out of the game. He made 9 of 19 shots while playing 44 of the game’s 45 minutes. … Senior guard Alex Barlow shot just 1 of 6 and missed all four of his 3-point attempts before fouling out early in overtime.
Notre Dame: Connaughton played in his school-record 137th game, breaking mark he shared with former point guard Tory Jackson. … Jackson made 4 of 8 shots two days after being raked across the eyes late in the round of 64 win over Northeastern and complaining of blurred vision afterward.
Butler loses seniors Woods and Barlow, but returns Dunham and Jones.
Notre Dame will try reach the regional final for the first time since 1979.
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