BROOKLYN — Notre Dame junior V.J. Beachem found the right time to come up big.
After Demetrius Jackson was trapped near the top of the key, the point guard jumped and found the 6’8” junior who drained a three-pointer to put the Irish up 62-59 with 3:35 left.
After Zak Irvin missed a three on the other end for Michigan, Beachem had the ball in his hands again. This time he drove down the baseline and drilled a jumper from 15 feet away to put the Irish up five.
“It was really no moment that stood out for me, but I just tried to step up and knock down the shots,” Beachem said. “My teammates were really finding me. Matt Farrell told me before the game he was going to find me all night, and he really did. So I was just stepping up, trying to knock down the shots, and I was fortunate that all of them dropped tonight.”
It would be their biggest lead of the game to that point, and with 3:01 remaining, they needed all of his game-high 18 points to complete a second half comeback and hold off 11-seed Michigan 70-63 at Barclays Center on Friday night.
“I’m really proud of him. A year ago, he didn’t have a very good postseason. He didn’t even play in the NCAA tournament. He really struggled,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said of Beachem, who’s carried his strong ACC tournament play into Friday night. “For him to deliver like he did in D.C. and to deliver tonight when we really need him. It’s a great kid who’s a junior and has grown and matures, and he’s a terrific guy.”
Michigan would inch closer thanks to an Irvin put back to cut the lead to three, but the 6’6” junior’s three-pointer with 13 seconds to go to try to tie the game hit the front of the rim. From there the Irish iced the game with four free throws.
Beachem scored 13 of his 18 in the second half as the Fighting Irish came back from down by as many as 13 and a 12 point halftime deficit. Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman led the Wolverines with 15 points, but only three of those came in the second half.
Notre Dame went on a 10-2 run to start the second half and cooled down the Wolverines hot shooting. The first five came from junior Steve Vasturia and the Medford, N.J. product made two free throws two possessions later to score seven of the Irish’s first 10 in the second half.
“When I saw Steve get on the floor and him showing emotional, I knew we were going to go on a little run,” Matt Farrell, who had five points and four assists, said. “You never see that guy smile or anything. It was awesome to see that.”
“We got a little challenge in the locker room, so we wanted to come out with the edge we always play with. We went on a little run, made some big plays. Once everybody got involved, it was fun. It was fun to play that way.”
Michigan, who had made 51.6% of their first half shots, made just three of their first 18 shots from the field to open the second half. That drought allowed an opening for the Irish and Matt Ryan drilled a three-pointer from the left wing to give the game its first tie with 12:18 remaining. Beachem followed it up with a three-pointer of his own to cap a 12-2 Irish run to take a 51-48 lead and three minutes later tied the game at 56 with a three from the left corner next to the Notre Dame bench.
The Irish made eight three-pointers on the night, six of them coming in their second half comeback. Senior Zach Auguste added 10 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks for the Irish, while Bonzie Colson came off the bench and gave Notre Dame a spark with 12 points and five rebounds.
Even junior Demetrius Jackson, who had 11 points of his own, helped in the comeback but only four of his points came in the second half. The night belonged to Beachem to help push the Irish into the round of 32.
“That was a fabulous college basketball game, it was an honor to be part of it,” Brey said. “Two teams going at it, throwing big punches. I’m certainly very proud of our group and the second half that we played, especially defensively.”
Michigan distanced themselves from the Fighting Irish in the first half thanks to a 10-0 run capped by a Aubrey Dawkins layup in transition that prompted a timeout from Brey. But Notre Dame made a comeback through their defense in the second half, holding the Wolverines to 28.1% from the field.
“They were getting stops, and we weren’t. They were making shots and we weren’t,” Derrick Walton Jr., who had 10 points said. “That’s pretty much what it boiled down to. We didn’t make the necessary stops down the stretch that would hold them off.”
Michigan head coach John Beilein was frustrated that another second half lapse, after letting Tulsa back into the game with poor defense in the First Four, finally cost the Wolverines.
“Beachem’s shots from deep, at the shot, we played 29 seconds of good defense on that play,” Beilein said. “We’ve been up and down all year with this, whether it’s schematic, whether it’s personnel, we’ve got to figure it out because you can’t give up a 58% percentage in the NCAA tournament and expect to win.”
The last time these two rivals played each other, the Wolverines pulled off an 87-84 victory in double overtime in the NIT, but that was in 2006. The win by the Irish snapped a streak of 13 games they’ve lost in the NCAA tournament in which they’ve trailed at halftime.
Notre Dame moves on to face Stephen F. Austin, who upset West Virginia in the earlier game in the night session, for a chance to move on to the Sweet 16 on Sunday afternoon.
“I know Coach [Brad] Underwood, we’re both Under Armour guys, so we spent time together at a couple of Under Armour events, and he was trying to get me to play him and I said no way, but now I’ve got to play him no matter what,” Brey said of Sunday’s matchup. “He did a terrific job. All I know is West Virginia had 22 turnovers and we’ve been hitting the concession stand the last two weeks. So we’d better be great with the ball. They’re a tough bunch. I was impressed. I watched before the game. They have a great toughness about them. This is an ACC game.”
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2015-16 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.