GREENSBORO, N.C. – Tales and talk about Notre Dame men’s basketball have long been about snapping a certain dynasty’s 88-game win streak and sustained success against top-ranked teams.
Another important and impressive chapter in that history was penned Friday by No. 4 seed Notre Dame in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament against No. 2 Duke at Greensboro Coliseum.
One year after being bounced out of the tournament on the first day and in the first game as the No. 13 seed, Notre Dame will play No. 5 North Carolina in the ACC championship following a 74-64 victory.
“I’m definitely hyped up,” said Irish guard Jerian Grant. “To be in a championship, to be able to play against Carolina, to be able to (possibly) cut down the nets and hold a trophy is special.”
The win, which arrived as midnight fast approached, helped the Irish set the modern day school record for victories. Notre Dame is 28-5. Duke fell to 29-4 – two of those losses to the bunch from South Bend.
“It’s one of the greatest wins in our history,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “And if we win (Saturday) night, there’s nothing in our basketball history that would be bigger than an ACC championship.
“Especially after going through Duke and North Carolina on their turf.”
Notre Dame beat North Carolina, 71-70, in Chapel Hill on Jan. 5. It was the first Irish win away from home. Friday was win No. 11 away from Purcell Pavilion.
Notre Dame was teetering on the edge of something – heartache or happiness – when it was up four with 72 seconds left. But Pat Connaughton’s 17-foot jumper beat the shot clock buzzer to keep the Irish believing.
Connaughton agreed that it might be the biggest shot of his career.
“I got the ball to Jerian,” he said. “Jerian makes great decisions. My job was to be ready to shoot when he gave it to me. He gave me the ball. I knew I had to make a play.”
On Friday, Notre Dame trailed only once – 2-0 only 40 seconds in. But with less than three minutes to go, a comfortable lead the Irish had worked with nearly all night was down to four.
“Getting tight!” exclaimed Duke guard Quinn Cook after Grant was called for an offensive foul, his fourth, seconds earlier.
Turns out it was winning time for Notre Dame.
The Irish again did it with defense which helped hold Duke to 3-of-17 from 3. That helped offset 28 points from Jahlil Okafor.
“God, we’re defending,” Brey said. “We’re digging in and guarding.”
Notre Dame led by 15 at halftime, by 14 at the under-16 minute timeout, by 13 at the under-12 and by nine at the under-8. The Irish were up 11 with 5:47 remaining before two unanswered buckets brought Duke within seven with 4:55 left.
Four years ago, the last time Notre Dame enjoyed a similar dream season, it was 20 minutes away from playing for a conference tournament championship for the first time in school history. Notre Dame was up 14 points on Louisville in a Big East tournament semifinal but lost in overtime.
The Irish got to the Big East semifinals six times but never made it any further. They’re 1-for-1 in their new home.
“It’s special,” Grant said. “It means we’re a special team.”
Just when the Duke cheering section had something to cheer about after the Blue Devils got within eight with 13:27 to play, Notre Dame had yet another answer.
Steve Vasturia delivered a top of the key 3 and then a runner from the left side that he banked in to bump the Irish back up by 11. And when Zach Auguste dropped in an easy basket, the Irish lead had ballooned back to 13 with 11:29 remaining.
“They had a smaller guard on me,” Vasturia said. “I just tried to hit a big shot, just playing to win, really.”
Notre Dame jumped into the bonus with the seventh Duke foul at 14:38.
The Irish have unleashed some big-time early effort this season but the one they offered Friday may have been among the best. Notre Dame got something from everyone to build a 16-point lead in less than 15 minutes.
“We talked about it,” Grant said. “It’s March. We can’t get off to slow starts. If you get behind early, there’s not always a chance to come back. We need to start fast or go home.”
How thorough a team effort was it? The guys in the mustard gold jerseys jumped to a 13-point lead in less than 14 minutes even though the team’s two seniors and leading scorers – Grant and Connaughton – combined for two points.
Everyone else was just too good, too strong, too confident that they simply weren’t needed.
“We had to show them that we were here to play,” Grant said. “To show them we were the aggressor proved something.”
The Irish had no answer for Okafor, who scored 13 of Duke’s first 19 points, but even that seemed part of the game plan – let him get his and contain the others.
It worked. Okafor had 15 points at half. No other Blue Devil had more than seven.
A Notre Dame team that had trailed 45-10 and scored 24 points in the first half when the team met last month in Cameron Indoor Stadium exploded for 41 first-half points and led by as many as 16. The Irish took a 41-26 lead at halftime following a V.J. Beachem 3 with 18.2 seconds remaining. It was Notre Dame’s first 3.
The Irish led by 18 at the break in Thursday’s quarterfinal.
Fifteen of Notre Dame’s 17 first-half baskets were in the paint. Colson was a big reason. He connected on his first five shots and had 14 points in 13 minutes.
“We knew we could definitely make plays in the middle (of the zone),” Colson said. “We did that.”
Notre Dame arrived in full attack mode. The Irish scored two quick baskets off drives from Grant and Vasturia, which forced Duke to call a quick timeout less than two minutes in. Even after the early brief break, Notre Dame kept attacking. The Irish connected on three of their first four shots (all in the paint) and scored each of their first four baskets right at the rim.
So much for the theory that the Irish lean too heavily on the 3-pointer. For the first five-plus minutes, it was as if that perimeter arc didn’t even exist.
Four different Irish scored the first four-plus minutes.
Notre Dame didn’t cool or deviate from its game plan after the first media timeout. The Irish kept attacking, kept attacking, kept getting to the rim. Jackson added two buckets, including a goaltend, to push the lead to seven. And when Colson got a bucket (again from close range) and free throw, Notre Dame had a 10-point lead (15-5) at 11:50.
The Irish made seven of their first 13 shots (53.8 percent). Duke couldn’t get anything going while going 2-for-10.
The Irish had 17 bench points at the break.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski entered Friday’s game a career 28-9 at Greensboro Coliseum. Brey was 1-1.
The evening started with a whole lot of drama as No. 5 seed North Carolina sent defending tournament champion and No. 1 seed Virginia home with a 71-67 victory, a game the Tar Heels controlled from nearly start to finish. That game was played in front of a raucous full house in the Coliseum, which emptied only a little – seemingly to decompress – once the nightcap tipped.
More drama was yet to come.
NOTRE DAME (28-5): Jackson 6-11 3-3 15, Grant 3-9 7-7 13, Connaughton 2-6 5-6 9, Auguste 4-7 0-1 8, Vasturia 4-7 0-0 9, Beachem 1-1 0-0 3, Colson 5-9 7-8 17. Totals 25-50 22-25 74.
DUKE (29-4): Cook 2-12 2-2 7, T. Jones 4-13 1-1 10, Winslow 5-8 1-1 11, M. Jones 1-4 1-2 4, Okafor 13-18 2-8 28, Allen 0-3 0-0 0, Jefferson 1-1 0-0 2, Plumlee 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 27-60 7-14 64.
Halftime: Notre Dame 41-26. 3-Point Goals: Notre Dame 2-8 (Beachem 1-1, Vasturia 1-2, Grant 0-1, Connaughton 0-2, Jackson 0-2), Duke 3-17 (M. Jones 1-2, T. Jones 1-5, Cook 1-8, Allen 0-2). Fouled Out: Auguste. Rebounds: Notre Dame 27 (Grant 7), Duke 34 (Winslow 11). Assists: Notre Dame 13 (Jackson 5), Duke 10 (T. Jones 5). Total Fouls--Notre Dame 17, Duke 21. A: 22,026.
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