GREENSBORO, N.C. — Closing in on the school record for games played, Notre Dame senior captain Pat Connaughton has seen a lot and done a lot during his collegiate career.
But he never has experienced anything like what happened late Thursday in an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals game against Miami (Fla.).
Thanks to Connaughton’s sizzling shooting — he made all five of his shots from the floor in the first half, including four 3s – Notre Dame led by as many as 20 points the first 20 minutes and took an 18-point lead at intermission.
Just when it looked like the Irish would put it on cruise control and start thinking ahead about Friday’s rematch with No. 2 seed Duke in the tournament semifinals, it all unraveled.
A Miami zone – a defense that Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga insisted that his team hadn’t played since the presidential days of John F. Kennedy – threw Notre Dame for a serious loop. A team that had looked so tied together the first 20 minutes looked so totally lost for chunks of the second half. The Irish missed their first 10 shots against the zone and managed only one basket the first 11:57. Their 18-point lead disintegrated into a two-point deficit following a 26-6 Miami run.
Notre Dame eventually found its way – and found it defensively – to win the school’s first ACC tournament game, 70-63.
“I couldn’t be prouder of a group of guys, couldn’t be prouder of this team,” said Connaughton, who on Friday against Duke moved into second place in school history with 134 games played, two behind leader Tory Jackson’s 136. “To let a lead like that slip away and to have all the momentum against you in the blink of an eye, the second they took that lead, it was like we re-lit a fire under ourselves and really wanted to take it back.”
As one of the team’s designated leaders, it was up to Connaughton to remain as steady as he could be when the Irish lead slipped toward 10 and then well into single digits before disappearing altogether. Still, Connaughton had little to draw on in terms of experience in handling such a situation.
The contest that came the closest was a Saturday night road game against Villanova during his freshman year. But on that night in South Philadelphia, it was Notre Dame that chipped away at a 20-point deficit before winning in overtime.
“This is something new,” Connaughton said. “This is something that will help us moving forward. We’ve been down like that plenty of times.
“To be on the other side of it, give up a lead and then get it back is not something many teams can do.”
The Irish have had their share of close calls this season – winning at home in double overtime against Georgia Tech, winning two nights later by defending a last-second shot at North Carolina, erasing an 18-point deficit before beating North Carolina State in overtime. Those were the experiences that Connaughton and the Irish drew on to get to their first Friday night semifinal in Greensboro.
“It’s that attack mentality that we needed to have that slipped away from us over the course of the second half,” Connaughton said, “We knew in order to win the game we had to get it back.
“You can’t really explain how it happened. It was just something you had to do.”
Playing 36 games over two regular seasons didn’t do it.
Beating Duke twice, winning at North Carolina for the first time in school history and getting three wins this winter on Tobacco Road didn’t do it.
Placing Jerian Grant on the first team all-league squad didn’t do it.
Thursday finally did it
When Notre Dame held off Miami for its first-ever ACC tournament victory, coach Mike Brey finally felt accepted in the league. Friday’s Final Four of Notre Dame and Duke and Virginia and North Carolina – three ACC veterans and the new guy — reinforced it.
“I really feel we’re in the ACC now,” Brey said. “To come out (Friday) night in the semifinals, three long-standing founding members of the ACC and us, I feel like we’re in it.”
Of the four former Big East teams that fled the last two years to the ACC – Louisville, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse – only Pittsburgh has won at least one league tournament game. The Panthers won two in their first season last year.
Pittsburgh and Notre Dame are the only ones to advance to the tourney semifinals. Syracuse lost in its tourney debut last year before sitting out this season. Louisville, the No. 4 seed, lost to No. 5 North Carolina in Thursday’s quarterfinal.
• Former Irish first team consensus All-American Troy Murphy was honored Friday as one of 14 ACC “legends” during a banquet at the tournament headquarters hotel. Murphy, like last season’s legend representative from Notre Dame, Pat Garrity, never played in the ACC during his college career. Murphy was a two-time Big East player of the year and ranks seventh on the school’s all-time scoring list at 2,011 points. He’s also the last player from Notre Dame to leave school a year early and be an NBA lottery pick. Murphy was the 14th selection of the Golden State Warriors in 2001.
• Following Saturday’s championship, the ACC tournament will hit the road for a few years. Next season’s conference tournament will be held at Verizon Center in downtown Washington before moving to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for two seasons. In 2019, it heads to Charlotte before returning to Greensboro, which has served as host 26 times, in 2020.
• Friday’s semifinal marked the third meeting between Duke and Notre Dame. It’s the first time the Irish have played a league opponent three times in one season since a Louisville triple play during the 2012-13 season, their last in the Big East. Those matchups featured a five-overtime regular-season game at Notre Dame and a Big East tournament semifinal won by the Cardinals, the last Irish game in the Big East.
• Duke came into Friday’s contest winners of 12 consecutive games. The Blue Devils had not lost since the 77-73 setback Jan. 28 in South Bend. Five of the 12 wins were by at least 19 points, including a 30-point win Feb. 7 over Notre Dame at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke opened league tournament play with a 77-53 victory over North Carolina State.
• One ticket to a lower-level, midcourt seat for the two-game semifinal session could be had Friday morning on StubHub for $912.24. Ticket scalpers were working the lobby of the tournament hotel headquarters Friday morning, with more along High Point Road all afternoon.