#6: Win over Duke at the JACC
I had the pleasure of attending this one, and while it might be attendance bias pushing this higher, it had so many huge moments, I think it could have been in the top 5. In previous seasons, games like this were easily the best moments of entire seasons. Mike Brey's Notre Dame teams always have a game like this each year. A highly ranked team comes to South Bend, the student section is full 45 minutes before tip-off, and the Irish find a way to pull off a dramatic upset. In the 2013/14 season, it was another win over Jabari Parker's Duke squad. The 2012/13 season had the 5 OT classic against Louisville. The 2011/12 season featured a win over #1 and undefeated Syracuse. I was lucky enough to be at on campus for those games, but this one felt different.
There was never even a thought of rushing the court. Top 10 teams don't rush the court. We EXPECT to win. Duke is just the latest victim.
— Leprechaun Legion (@LepLegion) January 29, 2015
Although ND was an underdog, the Irish were still ranked in the top 10, and were in second place in the conference. The Irish had already played a tough game against Virginia, and although they fell short, ND already proved they were for real. The game itself was also an instant classic. For all the complaints about how college basketball has become unwatchable, this one was anything but. It featured Jerian Grant dropping a bomb from closer to half court than the 3-pt line in the first half, and then draining a circus shot down the stretch to keep the Irish in front. Duke's star Jahlil Okafor didn't disappoint either scoring 22 points with 17 boards. At the end of the game, Grant was the better player. With the shot clock winding down in the game's final minute, Grant found an open Vasturia in the corner for a three to seal the win. The JACC exploded, and the Irish showed the country they were one of the best teams in the land. After this one, there would be not taking anyone by surprise the rest of the season.
#5: The First 38 Minutes against Kentucky
There will be a time to rehash the final two minutes of the Elite Eight game against Kentucky, but even after two months have passed, it still seems too soon. The first 38 minutes, however were incredible. The Irish went toe-to-toe with what was being called the best team in college basketball history, and did it by taking it to the Wildcats possession after possession. The #narrative was that ND would need to hit at least ten threes to even have a chance against UK. Instead, the Irish had an off-night shooting, and still had every chance to knock of the Cats. Pat Connaughton at 6' 5" had more rebounds than any of the behemoths on Kentucky, and fearlessly took the ball to the hole for a huge dunk in the second half. For all the criticism Zach Auguste received throughout the year, he played nearly flawlessly against the best defensive frontcourt in the country. Mark Titus from Grantland summed it up best:
We could be talking about how the Irish beat the brakes off Wichita State despite being a two-point underdog. Or how Notre Dame outplayed one of the best teams of all time for 38 minutes and came one shot away from winning. Or how the Irish went 3-1 this year against the non-Kentucky teams in the Final Four. Or how Notre Dame won the ACC tournament, finished 32-6, and reached the Elite Eight for the first time in 36 years. But of course everyone wants to talk about how the Irish choked. OF COURSE.
I guess all the Notre Dame doubters were right: The Irish's weak nonconference schedule just couldn't prepare them enough for a deep tournament run. If they would've scheduled really bad teams in November instead of god-awful teams, they'd probably be in the Final Four.
While they ultimate fell short, for 38 minutes with the whole country watching, the Irish showed they were a truly special group.
#4: Win over Duke in ACC Semifinals
I'll admit that I didn't like ND's chances going into this game. While the Irish had beaten Duke at home (remember, you just read about it), they were absolutely blown out in Durham by the Dukies a week later. The ACC Tournament, taking place in Greensboro, NC, promised to be closer to the second environment than the first. The Irish had also just looked atrocious in the second half against Miami in the quarterfinal round, while Duke was on a roll blowing out NC State in their previous game. Thankfully, the Irish paid no attention to what anyone thought, and took the game right at the Devils.
The Irish took just 8 three pointers all game, and instead drove the ball to the hoop against the Devils. More impressively, the Irish underclassmen were the key to the win. Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton combined to shoot 5/15 from the field, and didn't make a single three. With the two seniors struggling, Bonzie Colson had a huge game, leading ND with 17 points. Colson hit jumper after jumper in the first half with Jahlil Okafor reluctant to follow the Bonz away from the basket. Demetrius Jackson was just as good scoring 15 with five assists and three steals. The Irish scoring at the rim was also spectacular all night long. Irish guards finished through contact repeatedly. Three point shots were unnecessary when they could get three the old fashioned way at will. Not doubling Okafor on defense let the freshman phenom score 28 points, but the Irish got stops by holding Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones to a combined 6/25 shooting. After all the heartbreak in previous Big East Semifinals, getting over the hump to get to a conference championship game was a huge step for the program, and gave the Irish a winning record over the eventual national champions.