by Kevin O'Neill
Akron wouldn’t die easily, but Notre Dame pulled away late in the game and won 69-56. Ben Hansbrough led a balanced ND attack with 15 points. Tim Abromaitis scored 14 points, and Scott Martin added 11. Carleton Scott’s 14 rebounds led Notre Dame to a 41-32 rebounding advantage that, more than any other factor, was the key to the victory.
Quincy Diggs came off the Akron bench to lead the Zips in scoring on 5-7 shooting. The rest of the team made 17 of 54 shots, and ND’s dominance of the boards when Akron missed sealed the #15 seed’s fate.
“We’re thrilled to advance,” said Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey. “Any time you win a game in this tournament, I think it’s a huge thing. Akron, it took us a long time to get away from them, which doesn’t surprise me because they’re old, they’re smart, they know how to play.”
“I thought we competed hard enough to win,” Akron coach Keith Dambrot said. “We played good enough defensively to win, I think, against a pretty good offensive team. We just didn’t shoot the ball well enough to win really.”
Both teams got and missed a lot of good shots early, so the score was only 6-6 at the first media timeout. Notre Dame came out of the timeout suddenly in rhythm and ran to a 19-8 lead; but Akron started making some jump shots. When a Brett McKnight three cut ND’s lead to 5 points with 5:44 left in the half, Brey decided to play a more conventional two guard lineup and defend the outside shot more aggressively.
Notre Dame’s halftime lead was just 4 points; but the Zips shooters were under control, and they never got hot again.
“I thought the beginning of the second half we defended well, and we slowed down a little bit offensively,” said Brey. “I think we were a little wired in the first half. We were a little more patient.”
The Irish opened the second half with four quick baskets to stretch the halftime lead from 4 points to 11. Martin had 3 of them and assisted on the other. Akron had a guard covering Martin, and ND finally exploited the mismatch.
“I think Scott Martin got it going on us,” said Dambrot. “When you’re guarding him with a 6’2″ guy and he’s 6’8″, it’s difficult.”
“I did the easy part,” Martin said. “These guys hit the tough shots to kind of stretch the lane out a little bit, and they had to guard shooters. I was just able to find gaps and get in there.”
Akron really needed 7’0″ center Zeke Marshall to divert the Notre Dame defense’s attention to the lane, but Scott and Ty Nash took turns harassing him into a 2-12 shooting game and just 5 points. With no inside game and shooting on the wane, Akron needed Notre Dame’s help to win, but the Irish wouldn’t comply. ND’s workmanlike performance the rest of the way wasn’t a crowd pleaser, but there are no style points in a single elimination tournament. Six straight free throws, a Scott Martin layup, and a Nash dunk in the last three minutes removed any thoughts that Akron would mount a final challenge.
Final Score: Notre Dame 69, Akron 56.
- ND made 45% of its shots from the field, 41% from three point range. Martin (4-8) and Abromaitis (3-6) were the most accurate Irish shooters. Abromaitis was 3-3 from three point range as well as 5-5 from the line.
- Notre Dame went to the free throw line 26 times and made 20. Akron only had 6 free throw attempts. The Zips made 3.
- Atkins started in favor of Abromaitis the second half to continue continue ND’s pressure on Akron’s outside shooters.
- Scott had 3 steals, 3 blocked shots, 8 points, and a pair of assists; but his 14 rebounds were the big news. “Facing a bigger opponent, you know, it’s a challenge on the glass,” Scott said. “We knew he’s a long guy and going to be up there on the glass. I was like, hey, got to try to get every rebound I possibly can. I went out there with that mindset.”
- 6 Notre Dame players had 8 or more points. 16 of 21 ND baskets were assisted – 76%.
- Notre Dame’s 69 points are the most it has scored in the NCAA Tournament since 2003 when it had 71 in a round of 16 loss to Arizona.
- Notre Dame’s 27th victory of the season gives it the highest total during the Mike Brey era and the second most in program history. The Irish won 26 with only 3 losses in 1973-74. The highest win total ever was 33 (33-7) in 1908-09.
Notre Dame will play #10 seed Florida State on Sunday. The Seminoles defeated #7 seed Texas A&M 57-50. Game time is 9:40PM Eastern time. We’ll have a game preview for you later on Saturday. I’ll post an update here when game time is announced.
– Kevin O’Neill