DAYTON, Ohio -- Notre Dame coach Mike Brey opened his news conference early Thursday by wishing everyone a happy St. Patrick's Day.
"Did you notice Paul's shot went in at 12:02 on St. Patrick's Day?" Brey said, referring to forward Paul Atkinson Jr.'s layup with 1.4 seconds left in double overtime against Rutgers. "Maybe there was a little bit of karma there."
Whether it was karma or luck of the Irish, Notre Dame found a way to advance in the NCAA tournament after being the last at-large team selected to the field on Sunday. Atkinson's game-high 26 points helped Notre Dame to a 89-87 win in the First Four against Rutgers, a matchup of No. 11 seeds.
The Irish, making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2017, advance to face No. 6 seed Alabama in a first-round matchup Friday in San Diego.
Brey said he wouldn't be surprised if one of the tournament's first games turns out to be its best. The First Four had never featured a double-overtime game, and it was the first in the NCAA tournament since a second-round matchup between Texas A&M and Northern Iowa in 2016.
"That was an unbelievable college basketball game," he added. "[Rutgers] is really good and tough and fearless, and I'm really proud of our group because we just kept hanging in. We've grown a lot in the mental toughness area."
Notre Dame overcame two long 3-pointers by Rutgers guard Ron Harper Jr., a banked-in trey in the first overtime and another to tie the score at 87-87 in the second extra session. Irish leading scorer Blake Wesley drove and missed a layup, but Atkinson put back the miss. Coach Steve Pikiell and at least one Rutgers player signaled for a timeout, but it wasn't granted and the Scarlet Knights couldn't attempt a shot before time expired.
Rutgers was attempting to win consecutive NCAA tournament games for the first time in team history.
"The emotion at the end, it was heartbreaking to see it all unfold like that," Harper said. "The people up here next to me, we sacrificed a lot to get where we are today. For it to come down for them like that, it's just upsetting, it's devastating, heartbreaking. It's all of the above.
"It's March Madness. That's how it goes down every year. ... Just sucks to be on the wrong end of it."
Led by Atkinson, the Irish scored 58 points in the paint, their second-highest total in at least the past 15 seasons and the most by an ACC team in the NCAA tournament since North Carolina tallied 60 against Mount St. Mary's in the second round of the 2008 event.
"I haven't felt like that in a long time," said Atkinson, a graduate transfer from Yale. "Bunch of cameras on you, a big spotlight, last game of the night, it's amazing. Plus, I've got my teammates to cheer with, got family up in the stands, couldn't ask for anything better."
Notre Dame senior guard Cormac Ryan, who had 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting, said he has likely never played in a more exciting game. Ryan made one of the game's most pivotal plays late in the first overtime with the Irish down a point, as he intercepted a Rutgers inbounds pass and scored.
Although Notre Dame's fortunes didn't fully turn until after midnight, Ryan had a good feeling long before tipoff.
"I slept great, breakfast tasted good, I got the Wordle in two guesses," he said. "Sometimes you've got a bit of the luck of the Irish. That ball was thrown a little too high, I grabbed it, and there was one destination in mind."
Notre Dame's next destination in San Diego, as the team will fly across country through the night. Brey, speaking to TruTV after the game, joked that "there better be some Irish whiskey on that plane." Indiana, which won in Dayton on Tuesday night, had a delayed departure to Portland, Oregon, and arrived around 7 a.m. Wednesday.
"Being excited is great, but this is a mature group, and we know what's ahead of us," Ryan said. "We prepared for it, we were ready for it. We came into this game packed for San Diego. We're on to the next one and we're fired up.
"We'll be ready."