The Notre Dame Fighting Irish (15-1, 3-0) entered Monday night without a true road game or without a game against a currently-ranked opponent. That all changed as they headed to Chapel Hill to take on the North Carolina Tar Heels (11-4, 1-1) and escaped with a one point victory.
Truthfully, the Irish were in control of this one most of the way, maintaining a four to ten point lead until the final minutes in this one, when the drama really began. The Heels only held three leads in this game: 2-0, 4-2, and 70-69. The late-game North Carolina comeback charge was led by freshman Theo Pinson off the bench, who completely energized a Dean Dome that had been deadened by the dominance of the Irish most of the way.
But a Jerian Grant foul, his fifth, with 2:07 remaining gave North Carolina center Kennedy Meeks two free throws, which he cashed in. Suddenly, the Irish were facing their first deficit in nearly 37 minutes of game time without their best player in their first road game.
Somehow, some way, Notre Dame responded with just enough to scratch out the victory. A Zach Auguste offensive rebound and putback, an ironic twist given the Tar Heels' dominance on the offensive glass, was all the Irish could muster offensively the rest of the way, and it was just enough.
North Carolina had a series of terrible possessions down the stretch in their own right, but the Irish defense was up to task, a stunning turnaround given the turn of events to let the Tar Heels back into the game.
The Irish deserve all the credit in the world in this one, first, for their relative dominance throughout much of this game, but second and more importantly, for maintaining enough composure defensively without their best player to do what they needed to do in order to win.
Jerian Grant played his worst game of the season, fouling out after scoring 8 points on just 1 of 8 shooting, although he did have 8 assists. Grant was lifted by teammates Zach Auguste (18 points, including the game-winner) and Demetrius Jackson (15 points).
The best player for the Irish was probably Pat Connaughton in this one, however, as he filled up the stat sheet with 16 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 blocks. He was all over the place defensively for Notre Dame as well in, unless I am mistaken, all 40 minutes.
Marcus Paige led the way for the North Carolina scoring attack with 15 points but was an inefficient 6 of 17 shooting, including a terrible shot over three defenders at the buzzer to win it. All told, the Tar Heels shot just 37 percent from the field and was only even remotely in the game thanks to 21 offensive rebounds.
No rest for the weary, as the Irish play host to the undefeated Virginia Cavaliers (13-0, 1-0) in South Bend on Saturday. The game is at 6pm EST on Saturday evening and will be on ESPN2. It is another huge showcase game for the Irish as they continue their impressive march into the national consciousness.
Other thoughts and observations:
- Jerian Grant was brutal tonight. He cannot afford many more games like that if he wants to stay in the first round of this year's NBA draft or if Notre Dame is truly going to improve upon or maintain their top 15 status.
- Zach Auguste was very active tonight but just does not appear to have the bulk to handle larger interior players. Would it kill us to try to sell the over-the-back a little more on the defensive boards at least? If opposing big men are going to keep throwing their weight around so much and so obviously, at least draw a foul.
- The Tar Heels got some home cooking from the zebras tonight when things were looking bleak. That's legitimately a huge reason why it is so hard to win on the road. Credit to most of the Irish for maintaining their composure, especially Demetrius Jackson in the second half, who earlier got in early foul trouble and had to come off the floor, which killed the Notre Dame offense for a stretch in the first half.
- Shane Battier is the goods in just his first year at the mic. Great insight, casual style, excellent feel for when he should talk, reasonably funny. Immediately one of my favorite color commentators already.
- Brey was, again, an absolute blast to catch on the sidelines. And while I won't say he outcoached Roy Williams per se, the Tar Heel timeout management and possessions down the stretch were an absolute joke. Williams helped his team lose; Brey at least did not do that. Quick shout out to Brey for getting a wide open corner three out of a timeout with just over four minutes left, despite Jackson's airmail.
- Martinas Geben. Goes without saying at this point. He's just a freshman; it's not meant to pile on the guy, but those minutes can be better allocated.
- At 8:00pm on Saturday night, we could be talking about a legitimate ACC title contender. Before then, we will not be having those conversations.
- I saw earlier that this is the first time Notre Dame has ever started 3-0 in their conference before. Stunning.
- Theo Pinson. Watch out ACC. Kid can do it all.
- Notre Dame was excellent on the free throw line tonight but somehow missed their last four free throws. Those were high leverage situations to say the least, which, in my mind, speaks to the lack of stress in the non-conference schedule.
- This win, for resume, for psyche, for perception, for conference positioning, for everything so far this season, cannot be overstated. It validated everything this team has accomplished up until now. Well done, Irish.