GREENSBORO, N.C. — It wasn’t going to be as easy as it looked in a first half where No. 11 Notre Dame seemingly couldn’t miss.
To get out of Thursday’s Atlantic Coast Conference semifinal game against Miami (Fla.) and win a league tournament game for the first time in school history, the Irish were going to have to shake off any offensive sluggishness and guard.
Once they were determined to get the required stops on defense, Notre Dame got back on track and got out of Greensboro Coliseum with a 70-63 victory.
“That’s what we want to hang our hat on in March,” senior guard Jerian Grant said of the defense. “We want to play defense. To still get stops when the shots aren’t falling is still going to be our main focus.
“We’ve been in situations like this, so that’s why we don’t doubt ourselves.”
Unable to get much going offensively the final 20 minutes against Miami (Fla.), No. 11 Notre Dame inexplicably found itself with some very real game pressure applied. Serious pressure. The other guys were confident in their suddenly-effective zone; the crowd was against the favorite; the Irish were wondering. A lot. About everything.
When Ivan Cruz Uceda drained a 3 from the wing, an 18-point Irish advantage had evaporated and it was a tie game at 47 with 8:54 to play.
But Notre Dame (27-5) found a way to win its first ACC tournament game in school history, 70-63. Sophomore Steve Vasturia made seemingly every big defensive play and key shot/free throw down the stretch to lead the Irish with 16 points.
“We were poised,” Vasturia said. “We got some stops when we needed to and made big foul shots at the end.”
Vasturia fought off illness to go 36 much-needed minutes.
“I’m good,” he said. “I just woke up, wasn’t feeling like myself. By gametime, I was good to go. I knew I was going to play. It worked out.”
Notre Dame advances to Friday’s semifinals against No. 2 seed Duke (approximately 9 p.m.). Top seed Virginia and No. 5 North Carolina meet in the night’s first game.
Miami (21-12) now awaits its postseason fate on Selection Sunday.
Notre Dame scored 27 points in a sluggish, sloppy second half. Its previous low for points the final 20 minutes this season had been 29. For a long time, it looked like the Irish wouldn’t even hit double figures.
“I don’t think we relaxed,” Grant said. “We missed some shots. We got some good looks. The zone frustrated us. It wasn’t just us not playing the way we should be.”
Down by as many as 20 points in the first half, Miami took its first lead, 51-49, on two Sheldon McLellan free throws with 6:30 remaining. That capped a 26-6 Hurricane run. Vasturia countered 29 seconds later with a 3-pointer and when Demetrius Jackson bull-rushed his way to the hoop for a layup, the Irish suddenly had a lot more life and a 54-51 lead with 5:37 left.
The coaching staff was up. The bench was up. And the Irish defense was up to finally digging in and getting some stops, regardless of what was happening — or not happening — on the offensive end.
“We weren’t making good decisions on offense,” Vasturia said. “And we stopped guarding. If you don’t guard, teams are going to score and that’s what they did.”
And to think that the first half had been so good, so crisp for one of the nation’s best offenses.
Pat Connaughton scored 12 points on four 3s in just over 12 minutes. It was the most 3s he had gone for in a game since late-January when he had five at Virginia Tech. His only two-point field goal was a step-back jumper just inside the 3-point arc to beat the halftime buzzer. That gave him 14 points and gave the Irish a 43-25 lead at the break.
Smooth sailing into a semifinal showdown with Duke, right?
Connaughton returned from the locker room and missed his first three shots to start the second half. An offense that had flowed so smoothly, so effortlessly the first 20 minutes seemed stuck in neutral against an active Hurricane zone. The Irish staggered into the first media timeout without a point while the Hurricanes countered with five. Notre Dame finally scored — albeit one point — on a Zach Auguste free throw five minutes into the half.
The Irish missed their first 10 shots before finally getting their first field goal with 8:03 left on a Grant layup. That gave the Irish a little breathing room at 49-47.
Miami had scoring runs of eight unanswered and six unanswered to get within one on an Angel Rodriguez free throw with 9:53 left.
Notre Dame shot 62.5 percent from the field and 61.5 percent from 3 in the first half. The 43 points would have tied a season high for most points in a league game for the Irish.
The game tipped at 9:33 p.m. — nearly 73 hours after the Irish traveling party arrived in North Carolina. Being one of only five teams still carrying league tournament championship hopes by game time was a bit different for the Irish in their second ACC tourney go-round. Last year, Notre Dame was the first team eliminated from the ACC tournament when it lost as the No. 13 seed to Wake Forest.
There were so few fans in the stands last year that a black curtain partioned off a good chunk of the upper deck. That wasn’t the case Thursday, not with Notre Dame and Miami following a night session opener of Duke and North Carolina State, where the house was nearly full. It emptied considerably for the nightcap.
The Blue Devils jumped to a 22-9 lead less than eight minutes in and advanced to the semifinals with a 77-53 victory. Duke made it look really easy in placing six players in double figures.
Playing a late league tournament game is nothing new to Notre Dame, which was almost a semi-regular in the last slot during its latter days in the Big East. The 2013 Big East championship — the last time the Irish competed in the league — featured three late starts. Notre Dame beat Rutgers and Marquette before losing to nemesis Louisville in the tournament semifinals.
“Being that last game on Thursday night, we’re going to be anxious to play,” Connaughton said earlier this week.
And the Irish were ready. Really ready. Notre Dame connected on four of its first seven shots, and got five quick points from Jackson to lead 10-2 at the under-16 media timeout. A second Vasturia 3 bumped the Irish advantage into double digits — 15-4 — at 12:39. Two Vasturia free throws made it 17-4 just before the under-12 timeout.
Both teams entered Thursday’s game confident clubs away from home. Miami had won 11 games away from South Florida while Notre Dame went 9-3 this season in games not played at Purcell Pavilion.
Miami advanced to the quarterfinals with a 59-49 victory that was anything but easy on the eyes, the previous night over No. 14 seed Virginia Tech.
The Hurricanes picked up where they left in the scoring struggles early. They made only one of their first eight shots.
But it was a win for the Hurricanes, who may have been playing for their NCAA tournament lives. The Irish could relate having to play a group that felt cornered.
“It’s just like we were playing at the beginning of the season,” Connaughton said. “We didn’t know what would become of the season but we wanted to make the most if it. We were playing with a chip on our shoulder.
“That’s the mentality that we should have, not just in Greensboro but moving forward.”
A moment of silence was held before Thursday’s game in honor of Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the former Notre Dame president who died last month.