Irish double down with Atkinson, outlast Rutgers in 2 OTs to advance
Paul Atkinson Jr. came up big with 1.4 seconds left in the second overtime, collecting a missed shot by Blake Wesley and scoring inside to give Notre Dame an 89-87 victory over Rutgers in an NCAA Tournament First Four game that finished shortly after midnight Wednesday.
“This is the best game I’ve ever been in,” coach Mike Brey said. “You know that basket went in on St. Patrick’s Day. So it’s official, baby. It’s official. What a great game. Two teams that just kept punching.”
Atkinson, a graduate senior forward who is the only Irish player to previously play in the NCAA Tournament, with Yale in 2019, delivered the knockout punch to send the 11th-seeded Irish (23-10) to face sixth-seeded Alabama (19-13) in San Diego on Friday.
It was a big turnaround after scoring just five points in a loss to Virginia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference quarterfinals on Thursday night.
“I haven't felt like that in a long time. It's amazing. Bunch of cameras on you. Big spotlight, last game of the night. It's amazing,” Atkinson said. “It's just awesome. Got family up in the stands. Couldn't ask for anything better.”
Atkinson said he knew he had to be ready when he saw Wesley driving to the rim.
“I knew he was going to go hard, either get a foul or make a bucket. I just wanted to follow up if it was a miss and no call,” he said. “I saw it. I just wanted to chase after the ball. Got it up and got a good bucket.”
Brey said he didn’t think about calling timeout and he wanted the ball in Wesley’s hands.
“Our guy that can get to the lane the best, we came up and had two ball screens for him. And he distorts things. He turned the corner and somebody had to help, and Paul cleaned it up great,” Brey said.
Rutgers' Geo Baker, who scored nine straight points for Rutgers to help force the first overtime, couldn’t get off a half-court heave before the buzzer as the Irish began celebrating their first NCAA Tournament win since 2017.
Atkinson was 13-of-15 from the floor for 26 points and added six rebounds as Notre Dame put up 58 points in the paint. Nate Laszewski added 18 points and six rebounds, and Cormac Ryan added 16 points as the Irish shot 51 percent for the game.
Caleb McConnell led Rutgers with a career-high 23 points, but only five came after halftime. He also added 11 rebounds, and Ron Harper Jr. added 22 points, Baker had 19 and Clifford Omoruyi finished with 15. The Scarlet Knights got no points from their bench.
Atkinson praised the Knights.
“They wanted to battle, too, and we just wanted to battle harder,” he said. “We got some buckets to go in, and we matched up and we played.”
The Irish trailed by eight early in the second half, then led by five with six minutes to go, then barely held on to force overtime in a wild game.
A dunk by Atkinson with 2:39 left in the second overtime gave the Irish an 83-81 lead. But McConnell hit a 3-pointer to give the Knights an 84-83 lead. Atkinson then drove by Omoruyi under the basket with 1:27 left to give the Irish an 85-84 lead.
Prentiss Hubb then made one of two free throws with 41 seconds left as the Irish struggled from the free-throw line all night, making just nine of 16 attempts.
Harper then hit a 3-pointer with 23 seconds left to tie the score at 87. Wesley struggled much of the game, making just four of 17 shots for eight points, but he made a layup with four seconds left in the first overtime to tie the score and force the second overtime.
The game went back and forth throughout with neither team ever taking control. Rutgers opened a 44-36 lead in the first minute of the second half on a 3-pointer by Harper, but the Irish quickly answered with a 6-0 run to cut the lead to two points.
The Irish finally tied the score at 53 midway through the half. Laszewski gave the Irish a 69-67 lead with 2:02 left in regulation, but Baker hit a jumper with 1:50 left and the teams went scoreless the rest of the half.
Notre Dame got off to a fast start as Atkinson made his first five shots. The Irish outscored the Knights 30-14 in the paint in the first half. But the Knights outshot the Irish 58 percent to 55 percent.
Brey said he wasn’t surprised by Atkinson’s success early.
“We felt we could throw it into him and he could score in the low post. And he did. And then for a while there we liked the matchup as Nate as the only big guy, because when he ball screens, they had to make a decision,” Brey said.
Brey said they decided to go back with two big men to finish the game.
“Thank God for long timeouts, because you're in there with your staff kind of debating, and eventually I have to make the call. My butt's on the line,” he said.
Ryan said the Irish will be able to quickly get ready for Alabama.
“This is a mature group. And we know what's ahead of us,” he said. “We were ready for it. We came into this game packed for San Diego. So we're on to the next one. And we're fired up and we'll be ready.”
Brey said he has the same message for his team.
“My quote was, ‘Let's use Dayton as a springboard,’” he said.
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