GREENSBORO, N.C. — In a dream season of firsts, the Notre Dame men’s basketball team saved the best for last — and late — in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
Down by eight points with the time and the title hopes seemingly slipping away in front of a massive crowd, the Irish unleashed a furious effort on both ends of the Greensboro Coliseum floor that resulted in a devastating 24-2 scoring run and six straight defensive stops.
It all added up to deliver Notre Dame some well-earned hardware and nets and confetti falling from seemingly everywhere. Once it all cleared, a certain fog remained — like, did all that REALLY happen?
In its second ACC season, No. 11 Notre Dame returns home conference tournament champions following a 90-82 victory over No. 19 North Carolina.
“Never a doubt for any second,” senior captain Pat Connaughton said. “It was a game of runs. With the way this team has been doing things the entire year, we wanted to do something that this program’s never done.
“Everyone on this team was hungry for the postseason. It was just a matter of it getting here.”
All five Irish starters scored double figures, led by Jerian Grant’s 24 points. Connaughton added 20.
Third-seeded Notre Dame trailed by eight with 9:21 remaining when it seemed all the momentum was firmly with the guys in Carolina blue. But the Irish were just getting started. They got a few stops, made a few shots and everything — everything — just shifted. Like that.
“We didn’t want to lose,” said Grant, voted the tournament’s most valuable player. “We knew we had to go right away. I feel like we’ve been doing it all season. This just happened to be the championship game.”
Notre Dame scored 36 points the final 9:42 to seize this one. And then the trophy. And everything else that comes with it. The hugs. The handshakes. The championship hats. It was time to get happy.
It’s the first conference tournament championship in school history on its first try for a program that lost a decade of relevance during the 1990s as it wandered through college basketball’s back roads as an independent. But the Irish made themselves right at home on Tobacco Road this season, winning six games against teams from North Carolina. Notre Dame then beat two conference blue bloods, No. 2 Duke and North Carolina, on consecutive tournament nights in basically those schools' backyards.
Nobody gave them a chance either night. Nobody but themselves.
It would be one happy charter flight home for Notre Dame, which moves into NCAA tournament play on a serious roll, and sporting a 29-5 record. This after going 15-17 overall, 6-12 in conference last season.
The Irish led by as many as 14 late in a second half where they trailed by as many as nine.
“It’s crazy,” sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson said of the winning spurt. “But we play best on the road. Guys stepped up and made huge plays like they always do.”
The expected Irish scoring run finally arrived with just under nine minutes remaining. Trailing by eight, Notre Dame got a corner 3 from Jackson, a Steve Vasturia steal and score, a Vasturia corner 3 and a Connaughton 3 in transition. That added up to 11 unanswered points in 68 seconds.
And they were hungry for more.
“When Pat started knocking down shots, I looked up at the scoreboard and we were on a run and the other team’s heads were down, it really felt like we were going to get this one,” Grant said.
Still, when the final horn went off, Grant found coach Mike Brey and asked him if it was all real. It was. Last year at this time Grant was out of school because of academics. Now he’s an ACC champion.
“Having my teammates and coaches around me, I did it for these guys,” Grant said. “It’s fun.”
Grant put this one away with six free throws the final 36.7 seconds.
The Irish flipped the switch and the script by getting a little angry. A lot angry. At the score. At themselves. Once they got heated, they got going.
“We played a little angry and that’s good for us,” Jackson said. “We just realized what we wanted to do and we didn’t lose sight of it.”
After looking so unsure only minutes earlier, the Irish played — and defended — with some serious swagger. Championship swagger. At one point, Grant exchanged hand slaps with Brey after one of Grant’s 3 rolled around and jumped out with the Irish up five. They were having fun. A lot of fun.
“The great thing about this team is we never feel out of it,” Connaughton said. “We can always make a push.”
This wasn’t just a push; it was an avalanche. Of effort. Of emotion. Of winning plays. From everyone.
“They were really, really hard for us to guard,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams.
Afterward, Brey continued to play the role of coach, making sure everybody in mustard gold got a chance to cut a piece of the net. The last cut was saved for the 15-year coach who took a chance on a program where he would be the third head coach in as many years when he arrived in July 2000.
“We are so tough,” Brey said. “This is a group that’s amazingly tough. We’ve shown it all year. We weren’t playing good defense and they challenged themselves.
“The offensive rhythm we got into, that was a lightning strike.”
Everything happened so fast that everyone in the building not Notre Dame-related sat or stood in almost stunned silence.
“I don’t think they could even call timeout it happened so fast,” Brey said. “What a tough, tough group.”
Two Zach Auguste free throws pushed the Irish up seven before a J.P. Tokoto dunk snapped a 15-0 Irish run. Notre Dame had been staggered by a 14-2 Carolina run to start the second half. An aggressive Tar Heel defense wouldn’t let it. Carolina kept defending and kept building on its lead. A pair of Joel Berry 3s helped push the Heels to an eight-point lead.
Auguste delivered a monster effort of 16 points and 13 rebounds.
“Man, we didn’t hang our heads; we came out and fought,” Auguste said. “We just had to stick to it and that’s what we did. This is what we deserve. We worked so hard for this. Nobody gave us a chance.
“We’re not done yet.”
Jackson earned second-team all-tournament team honors while Connaughton and Vasturia joined Grant on the first team. Grant started the week by missing out on league Player of the Year honors to Duke’s Jahlil Okafor. But he rationalized it by saying a league tournament championship trophy would trump it.
It trumped it.
Notre Dame advanced to Saturday with victories over Miami (Fla.) and Duke. North Carolina, seeded fifth, beat Boston College, Louisville and top seed Virginia.
Next up for Notre Dame following its charter flight back home, which was scheduled to leave around 1:30 a.m., is Selection Sunday where it will learn its NCAA tournament fate. But there's little drama.
Saturday's tournament championship win carries with it something Notre Dame has never enjoyed - an automatic bid.
One year after sitting out all of postseason, the Irish are likely a No. 3 seed. With the NCAA’s desire to keep teams as close to home as possible throughout the tournament to maintain fan interest, the Irish could open postseason in either Columbus, Ohio (Friday-Sunday) or Louisville, Ky. (Thursday-Saturday).
As a No. 3, 11th-ranked Notre Dame would face a No. 14 seed in the opening round. Some teams projected as possible 14 seeds in various mock tournament brackets include Belmont, , Eastern Washington. Northeastern and North Dakota State.
North Dakota State beat Notre Dame last year in the regular season.
Tournament bids will be extended just after 6 p.m.
No Irish coach or player may get any sleep anytime soon, especially on the flight back to Indiana, which was scheduled to arrive home in the wee hours.
“That charter is going to be wired, baby,” Brey said. “I may play the trumpet on that thing.”