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Notre Dame hangs on to top Northeastern 69-65

PITTSBURGH — Mike Brey was all about controlling the message following Thursday’s brush with 14-vs.-3 death in the opening game of the first full day of the NCAA Tournament. What else was he supposed to do after Notre Dame’s 69-65 victory over Northeastern, apologize?

Controlling the message — with players and the public — is one of those things most good coaches try to do. And Brey is a good coach, his weaker-than-weak record in the Big Dance notwithstanding.

“I tell you what, we gave a show the first game of the tournament, didn’t we? That was the first game of the tournament,” Brey repeated, shaking his head and smiling. “Good for ratings, just like CBS wanted.”

Message to Irish fans, who had to be beside themselves when the Huskies had the ball, down two, in the closing seconds:  We won. Have fun with it. Everything’s fine.

But what Brey urged his players took on a different tone. He didn’t want the Irish (30-5) to feel they’d screwed up too badly in nearly blowing all of a 12-point lead over the final six minutes. He pointed to their opening game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament against Miami, a tight affair that helped get his team on a surprising championship roll.

“I told them in the locker room, ‘We weren’t going to beat them by 15, OK? So don’t anybody walk out of here feeling we should’ve won by 15. It was going to be a dogfight.”

Frankly, the Irish look good enough simply for having beaten Colonial Athletic Association champ Northeastern  after fellow No. 3 seeds Iowa State and Baylor, also playing early Thursday, were shocked by No. 14 seeds UAB and Georgia State, respectively.

The 14s might’ve gone three-for-three had the Huskies (23-12) managed to get a shot off on their final meaningful possession. But Jerian Grant stole the ball from Quincy Ford near the three-point line, leading to a pair of free throws by Zach Auguste with under two seconds left to clinch it.

“I’ve watched the NCAA Tournament and crazy things happen,” Grant said. “So I just wanted to be able to make a play and try to get the ball.”

If Notre Dame is going to do any real damage in the tourney for the first time since it reached the Sweet 16 in 2003, seniors Grant and Pat Connaughton are going to have to get a lot of help from their friends. They got a ton of it — from junior Auguste, who scored 25 points, one off his career high, and from sophomore Demetrius Jackson, who had a career-best eight assists.

Connaughton, especially, needed the support. Crushed on the boards 33-17, the Irish got only one rebound from their leader in that category.

All things considered, though, the Irish will take this unconvincing victory and run straight for Saturday’s game against Butler. The sixth-seeded Bulldogs beat Texas 56-48.

“We’re thrilled,” Brey said. “The first one’s the hardest one in this thing.”

For Brey, that hasn’t necessarily been the case. The Irish had dropped their last two tourney-opening games under their 15th-year coach, but Brey now is 6-4 in such games at the school. The Round of 32 has been less kind — to the tune of a highly disappointing 1-4 mark.

Despite the heartbreak Brey has seen on the opening weekend of the tourney, he said his confidence never wavered during a grueling final minute. First, Jackson missed a front end of a one-and-one with 45 seconds to go, leading to a tip-in by Scott Eatherton (18 points) that drew the Huskies to within two. Then came a turnover when Connaughton overshot Jackson on a long inbounds pass, putting the Irish in a potentially dire position.

“More than any group I’ve had,” said Brey, “they believe they’re going to get a stop.”

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg