- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- Notre Dame fans will be happy with a win. They might not be happy with much else.
The Irish opened their first big lead of the day -- a 21-10 gap built by on a pair of 3-pointers by ND guard Eric Atkins -- with 11 minutes left in the first half. By then, it wasn't hard to picture this game going the way of most of Thursday night's high-seed action -- the favorite asserting its dominance early and never looking back.
But Akron refused to go away. By halftime, timely 3s and stellar interior defense helped Akron close the gap to 34-30, and suddenly the thousands of local Irish fans in the United Center had reason to feel a little anxious.
ND used a 9-0 run to build another lead in the second half, but Akron responded again. After a Quincy Diggs jumper with 11:09 left to play, Notre Dame's lead had again dwindled to five (45-40), and again it seemed Akron could stick around long enough to make things interesting down the stretch.
In the end, it took all of 35 minutes -- Tim Abromaitis extended ND's lead to 59-45 with 4:49 remaining -- before the Zips eventually relented and the threat of an unthinkable upset finally waned.
Turning point: With 11 minutes left to play, just as Akron appeared to be mounting that second-half surge so crucial in upset situations, Notre Dame guard Tim Abromaitis sank two 3s in the next two minutes to help build ND's lead to 52-44. A minute later, Irish forward Carlton Scott earned an and-1 call on a fadeaway. Scott sank his free throw, put Notre Dame's lead into double-digit territory and the Zips never truly came close again.
Player of the game: None of Notre Dame's usually reliable seniors played all that well, but Abromaitis made the key buckets in the second half, and in an off night for ND's vaunted perimeter offense, his performance (14 points on 3-of-3 from beyond the arc and 5-of-5 from the free-throw line) made the difference.
Key stat: Notre Dame's offense was the third-most efficient in the country this season; it averaged 1.23 adjusted points per possession, per KenPom.com. On Friday, the Irish fell well below that standard thanks not only to substandard shooting but to some uncharacteristically sloppy ballhandling. Still, ND salvaged that effort by getting to the line 26 times and sinking 20 of those attempts.
Miscellaneous: Akron won't be making any miracle runs to the Sweet 16, but there's reason to believe the future is bright. Center Zeke Marshall, a 7-foot center that mans the middle of the Zips' defense, is rare for his size and athleticism at the mid-major level. Marshall's offensive game needs work -- he went 2-of-13 from the field, and nearly all of those shots came from inside five feet -- but his interior defense gave ND fits for much of the afternoon. Marshall's just a sophomore. If he can add some things to his game, you might hear more from him in the next two seasons.
What’s next: Notre Dame advances to play the winner of No. 7 Texas A&M and No. 10 Florida State as the Irish look to keep their Final Four hopes alive. The Zips made their second NCAA tournament appearance in seven years under coach Keith Dambrot -- who is perhaps most famous for coaching LeBron James at St. Vincent-St. Mary's high school in Akron, Ohio, before taking the job with the Zips -- and will finish their season with a 23-13 overall record.