Conference tournament semifinals are nothing new for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish under head coach Mike Brey, as this was their 5th semifinal appearance in the last 6 years and 7th overall under Brey. What they had never done, however, was actually win one of those semifinals and move on to play for a championship.
Notre Dame took down the heavily-favored Duke Blue Devils, winners of 12 in a row dating back to a loss in South Bend to these same Irish, to finally get past that hurdle and make their way into the ACC Tournament Championship.
The Irish wasted no time in attacking the Blue Devils, jumping out to a double-digit lead in time for the under-12 minute TV timeout, which they would sustain for the remainder of the first half. They were quicker to loose balls, attacked the lane at will, forced turnovers, and just had a look about them that had the presumed favorite on their heels. When V.J. Beachem buried a three just before the halftime buzzer, Notre Dame found itself ahead by 15 and sucked the air out of a decidedly pro-Duke arena.
Bonzie Colson, in particular, led the Irish attack with 14 points in a first half that saw Notre Dame put up 41 total while holding the vaunted Duke offense to just 26.
But the Duke run was always coming, and in the second half, the Blue Devils put together a few spurts that saw them close the lead to single-digits, including by as few as four down the stretch. But these Irish always had an answer.
When Duke closed the lead to 8 with under 14 minutes remaining, Mike Brey called a timeout to rally his troops, and sophomore Steve Vasturia responded with a huge three and ridiculous off-balance leaner off the glass in consecutive possessions to push the lead back to double-digits.
When Marshall Plumlee put back an offensive rebound to again cut it to nine, it was Colson getting to the free throw line and Demetrius Jackson with an incredible burst to get to the rim and finish around Jahlil Okafor.
When a Tyus Jones three, his only one of the night, narrowed the lead to just four with about three minutes remaining, it was Pat Connaughton a couple possessions later that barely beat the shot clock with a long two to nearly seal it.
This was the story of the night. An Irish squad with a great mix of veterans and youth just would not get rattled no matter what the second best team in the country threw at them. They were a steady 22 of 25 from the free throw line. They stuck to their game plan and never let the Duke perimeter attack get going. They came up with big shot after big shot when lesser teams would have just caved.
In the end, they pulled away for a 74-64 victory.
Colson led with 17 for the Irish, who had just three players in double-figures despite a strong offensive performance. Demetrius Jackson pitched in 15 of his own along with 5 assists and 3 steals. Jerian Grant had 13 and led the team with 7 rebounds.
ACC Player of the Year Jahlil Okafor had a game-high 28 points but was just 2 of 8 from the free throw line, which the Irish were able to exploit and was a large part of the Blue Devils' undoing. Justise Winslow, after one of the worst halves you will ever see, came back out in the second a different man and finished with an 11 point, 11 rebound double-double.
But the Duke backcourt was held in check, as Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook combined for just 17 points on 6 of 25 shooting, a testament to the work of Jackson and Grant on both ends of the court and a huge factor in the Irish victory.
Notre Dame has a great opportunity for a hallmark achievement for the program on Saturday evening, as they take on the North Carolina Tar Heels for the ACC Tournament Championship. Other than a trip to the Final Four in 1978, the program is short on major accomplishments and has certainly had its struggles in March under Mike Brey. A win Saturday evening would change that and give Brey some much-deserved hardware for a consistently stellar tenure with the Irish.
The ACC Championship tips off around 8:30pm on ESPN.
Other Thoughts and Observations:
- I am prone to overreaction immediately after games, but this has to be the best win in Mike Brey's career, right? Probably a top 5 win for this program all-time, too. Amazing, amazing night for Irish fans.
- The refs down the stretch were obviously terrible, but I think that's a college basketball thing as opposed to a Duke thing. I think refs are prone to let the losing team come back with their officiating, and that was clear as day in this one.
- Mike Brey is 3-1 against Coach K as a member of the ACC. That is ridiculous.
- Grant was relatively quiet offensively, but he earned his All-ACC Defensive Team spot tonight, as he very, very rarely let Quinn Cook out of his sight. Cook was 2 of 12 with Grant on him most of the night, and Jerian deserves a ton of credit for that.
- Mike Brey is starting to exorcise his demons this March.
- For all my worrying these past couple days about getting help for a 3 seed in the NCAAs, the Irish just took care of business and did it themselves. That's what a top seed does.
- Mike Brey had a masterful game plan in this one, and it's going to be the talk of college basketball nation until tomorrow night. Props to you, Coach. Well-deserved.
- Though I wish it was against Louisville, this is redemption for the semifinal loss from four years ago. This is one I won't soon forget. I love conference tournaments, and I am really bitter than Notre Dame never made it to the Big East finals. I thought they deserved it for an otherwise great tenure. Now, two years into the ACC, they finally broke through and now have a chance to cut down the nets.
- Mike Brey.
- Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia for All-Tournament team.
- Notre Dame is 5-2 against the ACC's likely representatives in the NCAA Tournament, with a chance to make it 6-2 tomorrow night. But they just schedule their way into the Tournament every year.