Philadelphia — Wisconsin was minutes 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, 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-pointer 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.”
More East Region
No. 1 North Carolina 101, No. 5 Indiana 86: Marcus Paige scored 21 points and North Carolina continued its offensive prowess, moving to the Elite Eight for the 20th time since 1975. The top-seeded Tar Heels (31-6) will meet sixth-seeded Notre Dame on Sunday, determining one of two guaranteed Atlantic Coast Conference spots in the Final Four. The Fighting Irish beat Wisconsin 61-56 on Friday.
It will be the same case in the Midwest Regional, where top-seeded Virginia will face 10th-seeded Syracuse, meaning at least half the Final Four will be from the ACC. The conference will also have a team play for the national title.
Brice Johnson had 20 points and 10 rebounds for the Tar Heels, who are in the regional final for the seventh time in coach Roy Williams’ 12 years and for the first time since 2012.
Yogi Ferrell had 25 points to lead Indiana (27-8).
No. 1 Virginia 84, No. 4 Iowa State 71: Anthony Gill finished with a season-high 23 points, Mike Tobey came off the bench to score 18, and the Cavaliers (29-7) withstood a second-half push by the Cyclones (23-12) after grabbing a big lead in the early going and advanced to their first regional final since 1995.
Virginia will face Syracuse on Sunday. A win would send the Cavaliers to their first Final Four since 1984, when coach Tony Bennett was a teenager.
Georges Niang had another big game for Iowa State, finishing with 30 points after scoring 28 against both Iona and Arkansas-Little Rock in the first two rounds. But an up-and-down first season under coach Steve Prohm ended on a disappointing note.
With a chance to go farther than they ever did under predecessor Fred Hoiberg, the Cyclones never could recover from a flat start.
No. 10 Syracuse 63, No. 11 Gonzaga 60: Michael Gbinije made a go-ahead layup with 22 seconds left. Tyler Lydon sealed the win with a block on Josh Perkins’ runner in the final seconds. Lydon then grabbed the ball and made two foul shots before Domantas Sabonis’ desperate fling was well off at the buzzer.
Gbinije scored 20 points and Trevor Cooney had 15 as Syracuse (22-13) advanced to the regional final for the first time since 2013. The 10th-seeded Orange will face No. 1 Virginia on Sunday for a spot in the Final Four.
Kyle Wiltjer had 23 points for Gonzaga (28-8), and Sabonis finished with 19 points and 17 rebounds.