Notre Dame Edges UW-Milwaukee 70-69
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Notre Dame won this one for The Clipper.
A day after shaving the heads of his Fighting Irish teammates as a show of team unity, Chris Thomas scored 27 points to lead them to a 70-69 win over Milwaukee-Wisconsin in the first round of the West Regional on Thursday night.
The 12th-seeded Panthers had a great chance to pull off the upset, but Dylan Page missed a layup just before the buzzer after getting a terrific pass from Clay Tucker.
The fifth-seeded Irish (23-9) are in the second round for the third straight year, though they haven’t advanced to the round of the 16 during that stretch. They’ll play Illinois on Saturday.
The Panthers (24-8) were making their first appearance in the NCAA tournament in their 107-year history _ and first postseason appearance since the 1989 Division II tournament.
They were in no hurry to head home and played like tournament veterans down the stretch.
They led 69-68 after Jason Frederick’s 3-pointer with 2:28 left and forced an airball on Notre Dame’s next possession.
The Irish had the possession arrow and got the ball back on a tie up. After two looks at the basket, Torin Francis grabbed a loose ball in the lane and scored the winning points on a putback with 32.8 seconds to go.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee did not call timeout and Tucker, who scored 18 points, held the ball as the clock ticked down. He drove the lane and dished to Page right under the basket, but his layup rolled off the front of the rim as the buzzer sounded.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee had no solution for Thomas, as the Indianapolis native silenced every Panthers’ rally with clutch baskets, assists or free throws.
Thomas scored seven straight points to give Notre Dame a 48-40 lead, but that was wiped out by a 10-0 run by the Panthers.
Ronnie Jones hit a 3-pointer to make it 50-48 with 10:22 left only to see Thomas answer with a 3 of his own.
Thomas made a steal on the next possession and was fouled as he drove into the lane. He sank two free throws, then had an assist on Notre Dame’s next possession to make it 55-50.
With just under three minutes left, Justin Lettenberger hit a 3 to pull the Panthers within one.
Thomas hit two more free throws to make it 68-66 before Frederick hit his 3.
Frederick pumped his fist as the small, but vocal, crowd went wild. It was the last big basket of the year for the Panthers.
Francis scored 23 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. Dan Miller added 12 points for Notre Dame.
Jones had 18 for the Panthers, and Page 15.
Notre Dame stumbled down the stretch, losing four of five and looking little like the team that was cemented in the Top 10 earlier this year. Its problems continued early against the Panthers.
The Irish turned the ball over four times in the first three minutes and 14 times total in the first half. The Panthers scored 10 points off those turnovers and rallied late from a seven-point deficit.
Jones sank a baseline 3-pointer to pull the Panthers within two. On the final play off the half, Thomas’ bounce pass was stolen by Dan Weisse, who dished to Lettenberger for a layup at the buzzer that tied it at 29.