GREENSBORO, N.C. – Standing with his back against a hallway wall outside the Notre Dame locker room early Saturday morning, coach Mike Brey could see clearly the spot where he admittedly had reached the lowest point during his 15-year tenure.
It was about 15-to-20 feet away, a small alcove outside a network interview room near the end of the hallway. Just over a year ago, Brey stepped into that area to address area media following his team’s first-round Atlantic Coast Conference tournament exit.
It’s where, following a disaster of a year that saw the Irish finish 15-17 overall, 6-12 in their first season in an unforgiving league, that Brey openly admitted getting to the break-even mark the following year and finishing 9-9 would have felt like “heaven.”
Twelve months later, that Wednesday afternoon in 2014 seems like a lifetime ago for Brey after 11th-ranked and No. 2 seed Notre Dame beat perennial league power Duke, the tournament’s No. 2 seed, to advance to a league tournament championship game for the first time in school history.
Having set the school modern-day record for number of victories with a second win over Duke this season, Notre Dame took a 28-5 mark into Saturday’s championship against No. 5 seed North Carolina.
“It’s really a great story,” Brey said. “It’s been a great ride with this group.”
A ride that Brey has noticed that others want to share. Last year, it was only two friends from his vacation home near Dewey Beach, Del., that accompanied him to the conference tournament. This year, Brey has his wife, Tish, family members from both sides and many friends, along with his two beach buddies, in town to witness the Irish chase history.
“Whatever they needed this season, they have season tickets ‘cause they were there at 15-17,” Brey said of his buddies. “They’re here. They haven’t made curfew yet.
“You win (28) games, everybody wants to come.”
Brey also stayed in the same suite at the conference tournament hotel as last season. It’s the room where the Irish gathered hours after their loss to Wake Forest to turn the page and start fresh. It’s also the place where guard Jerian Grant could openly apologize for missing the second half of last season for an academic issue.
Grant never imagined that a year later, he would be 40 minutes from the unthinkable – an ACC championship.
“I didn’t know where I’d be,” Grant admitted. “I didn’t know what my future was going to be. This was a dream. This is what I wanted to do and we’re a game away from cutting down nets.”
When Brey walked into his hotel room last March, Pat Connaughton sat with his arm around Grant’s shoulder, the first sign that the Irish were ready to move forward.
“I’m looking around and we’re a beaten-down group and I’m thinking, ‘Whew, this is going to be interesting,’” Brey said. “We tried to set a tone.”
They went out and set records.
Notre Dame advanced to a conference tournament championship for the first time in school history by defending well two consecutive nights.
As well as the offense was rolling in first halves against Miami (Fla.) and Duke, when those games got tight down the stretch in the second half, the Irish were able to grind it and guard.
On Thursday, Notre Dame held Miami to two field goals the final 7:11. On Friday, Duke didn't score in the last 3:11.
What’s been the key to the Irish defense?
“Whoever’s on the court, we have five guys engaged,” Brey said.
When Brey says five guys, he specifically means two guys – two key guys. Back on campus Monday during the team’s final practice before leaving for Greensboro, Brey called out his seniors — Connaughton and Grant — to be better defenders. The postseason, Brey would say before that practice, is about ratcheting up expectations of everyone, even if that means demanding even more from two veterans who have already given a whole lot this season.
If the Irish were to be better in the ACC tournament, his seniors had to be better on the defensive end.
“Those guys could have defended better down the stretch,” Brey said. “I got on them, like, 'I need more out of you.'”
On Friday, Brey challenged Grant to do what Duke guard Quinn Cook did to him last month and lock him down defensively. Grant’s offensive game never got in a good gear (13 points on 3-of-9 shooting) but he also forced Cook into a 2-for-12 night. Grant tied his season high with seven rebounds, all on the defensive end.
“Both of those guys have improved on that end being engaged for the minutes they play and not take possessions off,” Brey said of Connaughton and Grant.
Ink on the final stat sheet from the Feb. 7 game between Notre Dame and Duke had barely dried before Brey proclaimed that the Irish would not watch a single minute of video or even speak a word about what had transpired on the floor of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The next day in practice, he tore up said stats sheet and refused to show any tape of the game. In many ways, it was as if the 90-60 loss to Duke never happened. The Irish moved on quickly, but it was clear following Friday’s win that the game served a motivational purpose.
“It meant a lot,” Grant said. “We got embarrassed. It was tough to be in that game. We came out and used that as motivation.”
Nobody may have taken that day back in Durham harder than sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson, who was one of the more outspoken Irish afterward in the locker room. He was going to do everything he could Friday to ensure no repeat performance.
“They kicked our butts and they played better than us,” Jackson said. “I just wanted to go out and show that we’re a better team than that.”
Follow another leader
Jackson finished Friday with 15 points, five assists, three steals and five rebounds in 39 minutes. For a long time, he was the best guard on the floor.
But it was his presence and his poise that most impressed his head coach.
“He’s become almost like a third captain,” Brey said of the Mishawaka native. “We’ve got a third voice there setting the tone.”
Jackson has been unafraid on the court and in huddles this week. When Connaughton staggered through a stretch of shaky play early in the second half of Thursday’s quarterfinal against Miami (Fla.), Jackson was the first to let him hear about it. Loudly. Short of grabbing Connaughton by the jersey and shaking him, Jackson let the lone team captain know he had to play better.
“He’s able to challenge Jerian and Pat,” Brey said of his seniors. “He has no problem getting on their (butt).”
Jackson also has no problem stepping into a major role. Duke again geared its defense toward taking away Grant. It wasn’t as effective as it was last month, mainly because Jackson was really good making the right decision while running the high ball screen offense in the second half.
“He’s such a team guy,” Brey said. “It’s neat to see his growth.”
Jackson entered the Irish locker room at halftime and delivered a direct message to teammates as to how they might want to work in the second half.
“I was telling the guys at halftime – ‘Let’s get to the free throw line; let’s get to the free throw line,’” Jackson said. “How do you win games? You attack, get to the free throw line and not settle for jump shots.”
Notre Dame then dived into the one-and-one bonus, awarded after Duke’s seventh foul of the half, with 14:38 remaining.
Notre Dame finished 22-of-25 (88 percent) from the foul line, 16-of-18 (88.9 percent) in the second half.
“We kept driving in the second half and got to the bonus fast,” Brey said. “That’s just a huge weapon.”
The drivin’ Irish
Long has been the belief that one of the main ways Notre Dame wins is with a heavy reliance on the 3-point shot.
Only Miami (689) attempted more 3-pointers in the regular season than Notre Dame (666), which finished third in the league in 3-point field goal percentage (39.0) and first in 3-pointers made (8.3 per game).
The Irish then did most of their work Friday inside the arc. They made a season-low two 3-pointers – one in each half – while continually gutting the Blue Devils on drives down the lane.
“We just wanted to play Notre Dame basketball,” Jackson said.
Of Notre Dame’s 17 first-half baskets, 15 were in the lane or right at the rim. When the game got tight in the second half, the Irish squeezed off only two shots from 3.
“Everybody thinks we just shoot 3-point shots, but we have guys that can really slice to the bucket,” Brey said. “We felt we could drive them and attack. I just love our frame of mind.”
Following a scoreless six-minute effort in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, Irish freshman Bonzie Colson returned to his hard-playing, effective-working ways against Duke.
Able to find plenty of soft spots for high-percentage shots in the 2-3 zone, Colson connected on his first five shots in the first half before finishing with 17 points in 26 minutes, which matched his career highs set earlier this month at Louisville.
Colson also again showed no fear against Duke center Jahlil Okafor. In three games against the league’s freshman and player of the year, Colson averaged 11.0 points and 4.0 rebounds in 19 minutes.
“He’s a really good player (but) you just can’t be scared of him,” Colson said. “You’ve got to go out and play your heart out with energy and we did that.
“You think about him as another human being and play him just like anybody else.”
Colson and junior power forward Zach Auguste again were often left alone to guard Okafor in the low block. Brey was fine with Okafor finishing with 28 points while no Blue Devil had more than 11.
“We’re 2-1 with that philosophy,” Brey said.
Brey also utilized a foul-on-purpose philosophy in the second half. The Irish intentionally fouled Okafor with less than four minutes remaining. A 51-percent shooter coming into the contest. Okafor finished 2-of-8.
“We had Bonzie hit him a couple times,” Brey said. “It paid off.”