PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Wisconsin was minutes away from keeping a third straight Final Four berth in sight.
The Badgers lost the ball in crunch time and fumbled away their shot at March history.
Demetrius Jackson stripped the ball and scored the go-ahead layup with 14.7 seconds left and Notre Dame advanced to the brink of its first Final Four in 38 years with a 61-56 win over Wisconsin on Friday night in the East Region semifinal of the NCAA Tournament.
Jackson sealed the win with a second steal — credit this win to the Pluck of the Irish — and sank two free throws to send the Irish (24-11) into a regional final for the second straight season.
Notre Dame lost to Kentucky a year ago. This year, the Irish will get a shot at top-seeded North Carolina on Sunday.
“Maybe there’s some destiny involved in this thing,” coach Mike Brey said.
Or maybe a higher power?
“The Irish don’t lose on Good Friday or Easter Sunday,” Brey told his team in the locker room. “Can I get an Amen!”
Wisconsin must have had some other words in mind.
Both of these teams needed last-second game-winning shots in the second round to advance to the Sweet 16.
After a plodding 30 minutes, the dramatics Friday night came right on time.
With a third straight Final Four berth at stake, Vitto Brown’s 3-pointer with 26 seconds left put the Badgers (22-13) up 56-53. But the winning formula that helped the Badgers upset undefeated Kentucky a year ago was nowhere to be found in the final 2 minutes. A season of upheaval that included longtime coach Bo Ryan’s retirement in December ended with a dud of a performance in Philadelphia.
Ethan Happ led the Badgers with 14 points and 12 boards. Wisconsin star Nigel Hayes was a non-factor, scoring 11 points on just 4 of 12 shooting.
“I didn’t think I did a good enough job finishing around the rim,” Hayes said.
V.J. Beachem scored 19 points, Zach Auguste had 13 points and 12 rebounds and Jackson scored 16 points and the Irish have their first Final Four since 1978 in sight.
With Hayes slumping, Wisconsin let the Irish hang around and make a run even with the kind of gory shooting numbers that would have had them blown out against a Villanova or Kansas.
Yet the Irish tied it at 34 on Jackson’s runner and Auguste had a monster block from behind on Hayes that sparked some life into a stagnant game. Hayes snapped the tie with a 3 the next time down and a snoozer suddenly felt like March Madness. Hayes had missed 20 straight 3-pointers.
Zak Showalter flew out of nowhere — the lane? the sky? — and slammed home a miss that put the Badgers up 39-38.
The Badgers needed more of the same — but were doomed by off-kilter 3-point shooting (6 of 20) and 17 turnovers.
“We never quite got to where we needed to get taking care of the ball all year,” coach Greg Gard said. “And part of it is our youth. Part of it is things we’ve still got to mature through and grow.”
Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie sat on press row and watched Notre Dame warm up, then must have felt right at home with another miserable half of basketball inside the NBA arena.
Notre Dame and Wisconsin combined for so many misses in the first half, it was easy to think the 76ers were still in town. The Irish and Badgers combined to miss 13 straight shots over 4 minutes and nearly lulled the crowd to sleep.
Still, Wisconsin held a 23-19 lead at halftime and it was the lowest scoring first half of the season for the Fighting Irish.
But 10 points in the final 46 seconds pushed the Fighting Irish into the Elite Eight.
“It’s been a very surreal, excruciating year in some regards, exhilarating in others,” Gard said. “It’s also my job now as the steward of this program to help them navigate through this, learn from this … and help our other guys take this and turn the page eventually.”
Wisconsin: Two-time U.S. Open golf champion Andy North was at the game and rooted for the Badgers. … Wisconsin failed to become the first program since UCLA (2006-2008) to make three straight Final Fours.
Notre Dame: Jackson and Auguste shot a combined 22 of 30 in the first two tournament games, then went 3 of 16 in the first half. … New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was at the game. Christie is longtime friends with Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.
Wisconsin failed to become the 12th school in NCAA Tournament history to reach three straight Final Fours.
Notre Dame: NCAA Tournament regional final against North Carolina on Sunday.
Wisconsin: Season over.