Big basketball stakes for No. 19 Notre Dame men in ACC season finale

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Four miles straight south of where KFC Yum! Center stands downtown, just after Second and Third streets merge to become Southern Parkway, sits a place where longshots are loved.

Maybe not at first when everything still is muddled, or even halfway through an extended run. But when the longshot starts to make a late move, locals set aside their mint juleps out at historic Churchill Downs and pay attention.

Time to pay attention.

The No. 19 Notre Dame men’s basketball team broke free along the backstretch and is rounding the final turn in the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season race. Looking strong and sleek and moving rather effortlessly after a marathon season, the Irish are headed for the finish line with eyes on a big prize — the ACC’s regular-season version of the Run for the Roses.

Winners of a school record six straight ACC games, the Irish (23-7; 12-5) arrive at the arena on the banks of the Ohio River poised to match the school record for consecutive conference victories, set back in the Big East in 2010-11.

If that happens in front of a national-television audience (CBS, 2 p.m.) against No. 8 Louisville (23-7; 11-6), Notre Dame will have positioned itself to do what many figured was unthinkable a month ago – finish second in arguably the nation’s cruelest, most challenging and unforgiving basketball conference with a chance to share first.

Forget show. Forget place. The Irish want that win spot.

“We’re in a great position with something to play for the last weekend of the regular season,” said senior V.J. Beachem. “That’s what you wish for as a program. We just want to make the most out of it.”

Should Notre Dame win during the day, and Duke upsets rival North Carolina at night, the Irish and Tar Heels would split the regular-season ACC title.

Nobody — not coach Mike Brey, not league player of the year candidate Bonzie Colson, not Beachem or fellow senior captain Steve Vasturia, who have won their share of big games in big ways during their collegiate careers — could have seen this coming 27 days ago when the Irish were the longest of shots to do anything special in league play.

“Nobody,” Vasturia said, “had this in their heads.”

Back in early February, Notre Dame left Greensboro, N.C., following a loss to North Carolina in some serious league trouble. Despite a 5-0 start, the Irish were teetering on the brink of a .500 record in league play. They had lost four in a row and five of six. They were reeling. And wondering.

Yes, the worst of the league schedule was in the rearview mirror and an easier stretch of games was coming, but if Brey and his guys didn’t figure something out — and figure it out fast — all the hopes and dreams they first talked about over the summer would never materialize.

Heading into the home game against Wake Forest, Notre Dame was 6-5 and in seventh place in the 15-team ACC. All Brey hoped for then was a chance to throw a few wins together and have an opportunity to be good enough to get back to the NCAA tournament for a third straight year.

There’s now no doubt Notre Dame will hear its name on Selection Sunday.

“This group never really lost belief,” Vasturia said. “We could have folded. The way we play, the way we’re made up, we knew we could bounce back.”

Six wins later – all in the same mustard-gold uniforms they will wear Saturday – the Irish are thinking bigger than just earning one of the four double byes for next week’s league tournament in New York.

Dream big dreams, Brey often counsels his club this time of year. And they come no bigger at the end of a long year than the chance to share first place.

“We’ve grown a lot; we stayed together,” said Colson, a first team all-league lock when the selections are released Sunday afternoon. “We continued to motivate and continued to say, ‘Hey, it’s going to happen.”

Notre Dame now will have to do it in Yum! Center. The Irish have made three visits to the building that houses a bourbon bar on the concourse and have twice left with wins. That includes the last visit – two years ago to the day Saturday. With a blizzard outside that night, the Irish blitzed the Cardinals on their home court. Can they do it again on Senior Day, in front of 22,000 fans, most of them wearing red and black?

“It’s going to be loud; it’s going to be hectic,” Vasturia said. “It’s going to be a hard game of game situations. We have to go in there and do the things that have allowed us to go on this winning streak.”

That means playing small, spreading the floor and, maybe most importantly, taking great care of the basketball against a defense that will run pressure at the Irish in waves. That’s what gets the Cardinals going. That’s what gets the building rocking.

Poise will be paramount. From everyone.

“It’s going to be a tough atmosphere (but) we’ve played in tough atmospheres,” Colson said. “It’s going to be hard. We’re going to have to fight adversity. We’re going to have to stay together.

“We’re hungry. We’re humble. We want it.”

Time to go get it.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Junior power forward Bonzie Colson and No. 19 Notre Dame are dreaming big dreams heading into Saturday's season finale at No. 8 Louisville. (AP Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

WHO: No. 19 Notre Dame (23-7 overall; 12-5 ACC) vs. No. 8 Louisville (23-7; 11-6).

WHERE: KFC Yum! Center (22,090), Louisville, Ky.

WHEN: Saturday at 2 p.m.

TV: CBS.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

NOTING: Deng Adel scored 22 points to lead four players in double figures in Wednesday’s 88-81 loss at Wake Forest. The Cardinals made 12 of their first 20 shots, then connected on 17 of their final 41. Louisville outscored Wake 38-22 for points in the paint but forced only nine turnovers. … The Cardinals have lost two of three after winning six of their previous seven. … Louisville is 7-1 at home in league play with the loss in the league opener to Virginia. … Notre Dame is one of three teams (North Carolina, Virginia) with a league-high five road wins. … The Irish have won their last two league road games. … Notre Dame carries a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 22, a Strength of Schedule (SOS) of 50 and a Basketball Power Index (BPI) of 21 according to ESPN.com. Louisville has an RPI of 6, an SOS of 3 and a 7 BPI. … An Irish win would tie the school record for consecutive league victories (seven), set in 2010-11 as a member of the Big East. … Notre Dame is 2-6 against ranked teams with wins over Florida State, who were ranked No. 14, and Louisville, who were ranked ninth in the matchups. … Louisville leads the all-time series 20-15, including 10-3 at home. Notre Dame is 2-1 all-time at Yum! Center. … The Irish have won six in a row and have not lost in 27 days since a Feb. 5 loss to North Carolina in Greensboro. … Notre Dame heads into the season finale the national leader in free throw percentage (81.0)…. This is the third game in seven days for the Irish. … Irish freshman T.J. Gibbs and sophomore Rex Pflueger have earned spots on the ACC’s All-Academic squad. … Notre Dame opens ACC tournament play either Wednesday or Thursday with seed, time and opponent to be determined following Saturday night’s game between Duke and North Carolina.

QUOTING: “I don’t want anybody talking about a double bye. I want us thinking about trying to share a regular-season (ACC) championship. We win on Saturday, we’ll root for (Duke) on Saturday night and then we’ll see where we stand.”

• Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.