Although Notre Dame’s 35 previous NCAA Tournament appearances rank among the top 10 in college basketball history, the Fighting Irish have only one Final Four and a 37-39 record to show for it.
Notre Dame has been eliminated in the first round 12 times and in the second 13 times. Of the remaining 10, it has won two NCAA Tournament games in a row seven times and three in a row three times: 1978, 2015 and 2016. In 1978, three straight wins took you to the Final Four, but in the last two it was the Elite Eight.
So if we had to choose a “Final Four” for greatest or most memorable achievements in the Final Four, what would they be? Here are our picks — and it includes four different head coaches:
4. March 25, 2016: Threepeat! — The 61-56 victory last spring over Wisconsin was one of the worse games in terms of aesthetics, including the Irish trailing 23-19 at halftime. But the victory marked the first time ever the Irish recorded three consecutive NCAA Tournament victories in consecutive years. Furthermore, it came against a Badgers program vying to be the first team to advance to three straight Final Fours since UCLA in 2006-08.
Wisconsin led by eight in the second half, and then a three-pointer by the Badgers’ Vitto Brown with 26 seconds left gave them a 56-53 edge. Remarkably, the Irish finished with an 8-0 run, with a Demetrius Jackson steal and lay-up with 13 seconds left giving them their first lead of the second half (57-56). A pair of V.J. Beachem free throws (19 points) and then another steal and two free throws by Jackson (18 points) sealed the verdict.
Head coach Mike Brey now had won as many NCAA Tournament games in years 15 and 16 (6) as he did his first 14, when he was 6-9. It also was a Notre Dame record for most victories in the Big Dance over two seasons.
3. March 7, 1970: Unbreakable! — No. 15 Notre Dame snapped its school-record 12 years without an NCAA Tournament victory with a 112-82 romp over 21-4 Ohio U., the Mid-American champ that had toppled Big Ten foes such as Ohio State, Indiana and Purdue to make the 25-team field.
What the 13,540 in attendance saw at the Dayton University Arena will never be witnessed again. Junior Austin Carr scored 21 points in the game’s first 11 minutes while on his way to an NCAA-Tournament record 61 points, converting 25 of 44 (57 percent) from the field and 11 of 14 from the foul line. Collis Jones was his usual overshadowed self with 24 points and 17 rebounds, and point guard Jackie Meehan handed out a school-record 17 assists while attempting only one field goal for head coach Johnny Dee.
In the round of 16, the Irish led No. 1 Kentucky 87-86 before falling, 109-99. Carr poured in 52 points while shooting 22 of 36 (61 percent) from the floor. (Rare footage of Carr and almost all of his 61 points are in the video below, with the iconic Curt Gowdy the announcer).
2. March 12, 1954: The 1 And Only! — The Notre Dame men’s basketball identity often revolved around vanquishing the No. 1 team, which it has achieved as much as 11 times (depending on various criteria). Only one of those Irish victories occurred in the NCAA Tournament, and it came on this day.
At the Iowa Field House in Iowa City, No.6-ranked Notre Dame advanced to the Elite Eight with a 65-64 upset of defending national champ Indiana, led by All-Americans Don Schlundt and Bob Leonard. Avenging a 66-55 loss at Bloomington in December — plus a 79-66 third-round loss to the Hoosiers the previous year — future Notre Dame athletics director Dick Rosenthal (1987-95) led the charge with 25 points and 15 rebounds while holding the 6-foot-10 Schlundt to one field goal. A Rosenthal hook shot put Notre Dame ahead for good at 62-60, and two free throws by Rosenthal with 17 seconds left extended the lead to the coveted three points (65-62), with no three-point shot back then.
The victory improved Notre Dame to 22-2 and extended its winning streak to 18, still a modern day school record. The triumph also left head coach John Jordan's Irish as the highest-ranked team among the eight left in the tourney.
Alas, that victory over Indiana was to Notre Dame basketball what the conquest of No. 1 Florida State in 1993 was to football. Football lost the next week to Boston College to fall from No. 1, and Notre Dame basketball was upset by Penn State, 71-63, the day after the Indiana victory. LaSalle, led by Tom Gola, went on to capture the national crown.
1. March 19, 1978: Finally, The Final Four! – A preseason pick to be among the nation’s top 5, Notre Dame’s deepest team ever fulfilled its destiny with an 84-64 victory over No. 3 DePaul in Kansas’ Allen Field House to advance to the Final Four for the first (and still lone) time in its history.
Head coach Digger Phelps’ lineup included three players who would play at least 10 years in the NBA: Bill Laimbeer, Orlando Woolridge and Bill Hanzlik. A fourth, Tracy Jackson, would play there several years. And that was just the second team!
The starters included center Bruce Flowers, forwards Dave Batton and freshman phenom Kelly Tripucka, and guards Don “Duck” Williams and Rich Branning.
One month earlier, head coach Ray Meyer’s Blue Demons traveled to Notre Dame and upset the Irish in overtime, 69-68. In the rematch, Notre Dame’s depth overwhelmed DePaul. Tripucka scored 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, while Branning played a nearly flawless floor game with 15 points and seven assists.
“Our top five players can beat Notre Dame’s top five players,” said Meyer afterwards. “But our top 10 players against their top 10, no way!” (Notre Dame highlights in the video below begin around 6:37).
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