Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey described his squad as a "team of destiny" after Friday night's semifinal win over Duke. It was certainly an understandable statement from the Irish head man, having just gone toe-to-toe with heavyweight Duke, knocking out the Blue Devils behind a sensational defensive effort and just enough offense down the stretch. This coming one night after his team battled its way to victory despite a nearly 12-minute scoring drought against a team desperate to boost its tournament resume.
On Saturday night, Brey's team of destiny had just one obstacle left in order to win their elusive first ever conference championship. The North Carolina Tar Heels, fresh off their defeat of regular season champion Virginia in their third game in as many days, had a deep frontline, home crowd, Hall of Fame coach, and reigning ACC player of the year standing in Notre Dame's way of their destiny.
Both offenses came out firing, as most expected, with North Carolina's frontcourt getting the better of Notre Dame's while the Irish themselves heat up from the outside. The team's strengths and weaknesses were on full display, and it resulted in a fast-paced, back-and-forth battle in which neither team led by more than six at any point in the half.
When Irish sophomore Steve Vasturia nailed an open three just before the buzzer to give Notre Dame the five point lead, the Greensboro Coliseum crowd had just been treated to a blistering half featuring more than 70 points. But the best offense, and nearly 100 points between the two teams, was yet to come.
In the second half, the Irish saw their lead quickly evaporate, as North Carolina took the lead less than 3 minutes in on a Marcus Paige three. The Tar Heels scored on their next 10 possessions following Paige's three, extending their lead to as many as 9 in the process.
Just after a timeout with nearly ten minutes remaining in the game and trailing by 8, Notre Dame started a comeback run that Irish fans won't soon forget. It started with a Demetrius Jackson three in the corner and, seconds later, continued with a Steve Vasturia fast break lay-up after he jumped a passing lane for a steal.
In vintage Notre Dame fashion, the Irish tied the score on the very next possession following a Grant-Connaughton-Jackson-Vasturia around-the-horn that finished with Vasturia burying his corner three. Another fast break later, Jackson found Pat Connaughton for another three, and all of a sudden, in just about 90 seconds of game time, the Irish turned an eight-point deficit into a three-point lead.
They were far from finished. Notre Dame forced turnovers on three straight possessions, including one that ended in Zach Auguste taking a steal back on his own for a dunk. The Irish had suddenly become dominant on both ends of the court, following what had to have been a timeout speech for the ages from Mike Brey. Only a J.P. Tokoto dunk briefly interrupted a 24-2 Irish run that extended from 9:21 to 2:45 remaining in the game.
A team that seemingly has refused to quit all season long had yet another fight in them with their backs against the wall and turned a 64-56 deficit into an 80-66 lead with only a few minutes standing between them and that elusive conference championship.
They did it attacking the basket. They did it forcing turnovers. They did it from beyond the arc. They did it from the free throw line. They did it on the defensive boards. They just did everything right, playing nearly perfect basketball for almost 7 minutes, as champions do in big moments.
The Irish, especially senior Jerian Grant, excelled from the free throw line down the stretch to close out the game and win the ACC Championship, 90-82.
Notre Dame was led, as they have been all season long, by Grant, who paced the blistering Irish offense with 24 points and 10 assists, this on a night when foul trouble kept him to "just" 35 minutes. His fellow senior, Pat Connaughton, scored 20 points of his own on a red hot 7 of 9 from the field including 4 from beyond the arc.
Zach Auguste grabbed himself a double-double with 16 points and 13 rebounds, including plenty of key defensive boards down the stretch when the Irish were struggling to grab any. The entire starting lineup scored in double-digits, with Jackson's 11 and Vasturia's 14 to add to Notre Dame's remarkable 90-point output.
Brice Johnson was great for the Tar Heels, scoring 20 points on 10 of 12 from the field. That said, Marcus Paige was really the architect behind their second half outburst, as he turned a middling first half into an excellent 24 point performance with plenty of daggers from behind the arc during their biggest run.
But their efforts, despite leading North Carolina to a gaudy 82 points on the night, just were not enough for a Notre Dame team that saved perhaps its best offensive performance for the biggest stage. Team of destiny? Nah. Just a great team that never quits when it gets knocked down, has the moxie to hit tough shots in the most dire moments, and knows how to close out a game like a champion.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish, standing at 29-5 on the season, are just that. ACC Champions.
Other Thoughts and Observations:
- Watching and covering this team here has been my favorite experience as a Notre Dame fan in any sport in my life. They just don't have any quit in them. Now, a program very short on banners will forever have one hanging in the rafters commemorating this team. Whatever the next few weeks hold or the next few years or the rest of Mike Brey's tenure or whatever, that ACC Championship banner will always be a special one for me.
- Mike Brey absolutely deserved this. He took a bottom-of-the-barrel program and struggled like crazy just to get it back to relevancy only to experience failure after failure in March. Now, he's finally a champ after 15 difficult years with no real support from the considerable Notre Dame coffers or the massive Irish fanbase. The monkey is off your back, Coach. Congratulations.
- This team just beat Duke and North Carolina on consecutive days in the state of North Carolina. Just let that sink in a little bit. Only the third team ever to beat Duke and UNC en route to an ACC Tournament Championship.
- They also beat Duke twice, North Carolina twice in North Carolina, Louisville in Louisville, and Michigan State this season. Not intimidated by anyone.
- Jerian Grant willed his way to the free throw line time and time again and knocked down 15 of 18. Hello, NBA scouts. Hope you were watching this one.
- North Carolina out-rebounded the Irish by 21 in Chapel Hill in January but only by 2 on Saturday night, which is crazy considering how dominant they had been on the offensive boards mid-way through the second. At some point, a light switched on for Zach Auguste in a way that I don't think we've ever seen from him and he played like a man possessed the rest of the way. Amazing second half from Auguste.
- Reasonable minds can disagree, but I think this is a more impressive run than any Elite Eight run would be. Yea, the NCAA Tournament is perceived as more important, and the college basketball nation would be more impressed if we had an Elite Eight run than they are for winning a conference tournament. But beating Miami, Duke, and North Carolina in consecutive days (in North Carolina) is, in my mind, harder than the vast majority of runs to the Elite Eight.
- I don't know what else there is to say. This was maybe the best weekend in program history. Thanks to this team for an incredible ride, a fun-to-watch brand of basketball, a never-say-die attitude, and bringing a trophy back to South Bend.