PHILADELPHIA — For more than 30 minutes, Wisconsin and Notre Dame engaged in a boring brick-throwing contest, but with a berth in the East Regional final on the line, a basketball game broke out coming down the stretch. Point guard Demetrius Jackson, who was suffering through a miserable game, caught fire to help the Irish overcome a five-point deficit in the final three minutes and pull out a 61-56 victory Friday night.
Notre Dame (24-11) will face North Carolina (31-6) — which beat Indiana, 101-86, on Friday night — — in Sunday’s regional final.
Things looked bleak for the Irish until they put together a 17-7 finishing run that included eight points by Jackson, who stole the ball from Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes and scored on a layup to put the Irish ahead for good at 57-56 with 14.4 seconds left.
Jackson said he told teammate Bonzie Colson to drop back to midcourt to prevent a long inbounds pass, but Colson stayed forward and knocked the inbounds pass out of Hayes’ hands.
“I’m glad he didn’t listen to me,” Jackson said. “He tipped the ball, and it fell into my hands. I had an easy layup. It was just up to me to put it in.”
After Notre Dame’s V.J. Beachem hit two free throws with six seconds left, another steal by Jackson from Badgers star Bronson Koenig with 2.7 seconds remaining sealed the victory. Jackson’s two free throws put the game out of reach.
“We’re obviously disappointed with how it finished from the standpoint of having 17 turnovers,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “I don’t know if there’s a program in the country that prides itself more on taking care of the ball and valuing every possession more than Wisconsin. And to have this kind of ending — it will sting for a while.”
Usually dependable players from both teams struggled badly throughout, no one more than Jackson, a projected NBA first-round pick, who made only one of his first 10 shots but scored 16 points, shot 6-for-18 and had six assists. Beachem led the Irish with 19 points and center Zach Auguste has 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Hayes continued his late-season slump for the Badgers, scoring 11 points and shooting 4-for-12 with six turnovers. The Badgers were led by Ethan Happ with 14 points and 12 rebounds and Zak Showalter with 11 points, but Koenig had only eight points, including one in the second half, and shot only 3-for-12.
The Badgers (22-13) failed to capitalize on poor Irish shooting in the first half and reached the halftime break with a mere four-point lead at 23-19. Notre Dame shot 24.1 percent for the half (7-for-29), including a 2-for-9 effort from three-point range. But Wisconsin shot only 34.6 percent (9-for-26) and was even worse from three-point range with 2-for-11 shooting.
The Irish put together an 8-0 surge to tie the score at 34 on a layup by Jackson with 10:10 left in the game. It was just his second basket. At 8:50, Jackson hit a pair of free throws for a 38-37 lead, and he was on his way to a fantastic finish.
Irish coach Mike Brey saw that some rated his team as 16th-best in the Sweet 16, but he said, “I thought we were the No. 1 team in toughness, and it played itself out again.”