BUFFALO, N.Y — V.J. Beachem said he didn’t care if it had to bounce a million times. Notre Dame’s senior wing just wanted it to not go in.
Princeton sophomore guard Devin Cannady — a native of Mishawaka, Ind. — narrowly missed a game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds Thursday, giving the fifth-seeded Irish a 60-58 win over the 12th-seeded Tigers at KeyBank Center.
Irish junior guard Matt Farrell — whose missed free-throw on the front end of a one-and-one with 11 seconds remaining opened the door for the Tigers — got a hand in Cannady’s face as the shot went up from the left wing.
Back rim. Disaster averted.
“I’ve got to start going to church, I guess,” Farrell said.
Meanwhile, senior guard Steve Vasturia said he was just thinking about grabbing a rebound, which he did with 0.4 seconds remaining to secure the victory and thwart the Tigers’ upset hopes.
The victory begins what could potentially be another deep NCAA Tournament run for the veteran Irish. But first, head coach Mike Brey’s team had to escape in Buffalo, where the crowd turned in Princeton’s favor in the second half.
“First game of the tournament, did we give everybody a show?” Brey said. “I mean we start this tournament off just like it’s supposed to be, baby. Everybody in the sports bars, they thought Princeton’s the next Cinderella. They’re cheering for them, but thank god we escaped.”
The Irish will face the winner of No. 4-seed West Virginia and No. 13 seed Bucknell on Saturday.
Inside the Notre Dame locker room, there was a sense of relief that the six-point favorite was able to hold onto the win. The Irish led by 11 points midway through the second half before the Tigers close the gap.
After Vasturia hit a 3-pointer to make it 50-41 with 8:50 remaining, Princeton close the game on a 17-9 run and had the ball twice with under a minute to tie or take the lead.
Notre Dame’s players spoke about their poise and experience in big-time games. While the Irish improved to 7-2 in NCAA Tournament games the past three years, Brey’s team made a series of uncharacteristic mistakes in the final minutes.
Princeton missed two open shots in the final 30 seconds. Cannady’s miss, and a wide-open look by forward Steven Cook that would have tied the game.
Notre Dame finished the game just 14-of-21 from the line (66.7 percent). The Irish entered as the nation’s best free-throw shooting team at 79.9 percent. Farrell, as well as junior forward Bonzie Colson, each had multiple misses (Colson 6-of-10, Farrell 1-of-3).
“That’s something we have to be better in, of course,” Colson said. “Locking in there, get in a routine. Nothing more to say about that.”
But after shaking off the pesky Tigers, Notre Dame’s players believe Thursday’s narrow win could spark another run.
“We were tough,” Vasturia said. “It’s not going to be pretty all the time. Especially in the NCAA Tournament, every game’s not going to be where you’re knocking down every shot. It’s not going to be cake. Every team you play is good. All I can really say about it is we got a win and that’s something that can really jump start us.”
Brey sees it the same way.
“I said, ‘Fellas, the last two years we make Elite Eight runs, and and the Northeastern game (2015) was just like this and the Michigan game (2016) was,’” Brey said. “Sometimes a really hard game can jump start you on a run. We certainly are going to talk about that.”