CLEVELAND — Pat Connaughton fired from the right wing. The ball splashed through the net. Jerian Grant screamed in triumph. Mike Brey pounded his fists into his chest.
Wichita State called timeout, but it hardly mattered — the game was over.
Connaughton’s shot came during a 15-2 second-half spurt that helped define Notre Dame’s giant 81-70 victory over Wichita State in this Sweet 16 affair. The run started with a shot-clock-beating three-pointer by Grant for a 63-54 lead and included clutch contributions from Demetrius Jackson, Zach Auguste and Steve Vasturia — in other words, every guy on the floor wearing green and gold.
There were long balls, screen-and-rolls, even an alley-oop. There was killer defense by Notre Dame (32-5), too, but who wants to talk about that end of the court?
A little over three minutes into the second half, the Irish fell behind 38-37, their first deficit of the game. By the time a proud Wichita State team waved the white flag, it was 75-56 and the Shockers (30-5) had been on the business end of an offensive masterpiece.
“Not a lot of strategy,” said Brey, the Irish coach. “Come out with a great will, continue to defend and then we got into one of those offensive rhythms that nobody else in the country can do.”
If that comes off as a little brash, who can blame the guy? Notre Dame is in the national quarterfinals for the first time since 1979 — before the expansion of the tourney from 32 teams to 64 — and has won three games in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1978. And it’s a high-water mark in the career of the 15th-year Irish coach, who notched his first Sweet 16 triumph just five days after losing his mother, Betty Brey, to a fatal heart attack.
The emotional roller coaster is going to climb when your team shoots 75 percent in the second half.
“That’s the best offensive team we’ve faced all year, hands down,” said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall.
Jackson set the tone in both halves. He hit a pair of threes out of the gate as the Irish surged to an 18-5 advantage and nailed back-to-back threes after the Shockers had climbed into their first — and last — lead with 16:40 to go. Connaughton added 16 and 10 rebounds. Auguste and Vasturia scored 15 apiece, and Grant dished out 11 assists.
“We really do a great job sharing the ball, finding a great shot every possession,” Jackson said. “Guys step up and make huge shots.”
It has been a magical run for the Irish since the start of the ACC tournament. And it goes back further than that, to the regular-season victory over Duke and the many other surprise successes achieved by a group of players and coaches who, this time a year ago, were licking their wounds after a sub-.500 campaign. What a comeback it has been.
“I was thinking about that all day,” Brey said. “I just don’t want it to end for this particular team, because this group has been so energizing and so fun to be around. … I was thinking if we don’t — like, I don’t get to interact with them on Friday if we don’t get it done.”
Not an issue. The Dance continues.