Procedurally speaking, there’s still some work to be done with this whole upset-on-an-ACC-team’s-court thing.
In a perfect world, you’d rather not miss four free throws in a row down the stretch or shoot air balls or have your most dynamic player foul out after shooting 1-of-8 from the field or go more than nine minutes down the stretch without a field goal.
You’d hope by now that Jerian Grant, Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia and even Pat Connaughton from the free-throw line would flash a bit more composure with the game on the line.
But when the madness reached a crescendo Monday night at the Dean E. Smith Center, it was No. 13 Notre Dame (15-1, 3-0) that equaled last year’s season-long win total with a memorable 71-70 victory over No. 18 North Carolina (11-4, 1-1).
“When we would have disappointing offensive possessions last year, we’d hang our head and couldn’t guard,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “This group is more mentally tough where they’ll go back and still defend and rebound.”
Indeed, it is a bold new world when a Brey-coached Notre Dame squad wins it with defense, but that’s exactly what the Irish did after scoring eight points over the final 10:12, including Zach Auguste’s put-back of a Connaughton miss with 1:07 remaining, which proved to be the game-winner.
“We’ve made great progress,” said Brey of Notre Dame’s work on the defensive end. “When we had to get key stops, we really dug in.”
North Carolina missed its final eight shots, including Marcus Paige’s prayerful-launch from deep in the corner with the 6-foot-6 Vasturia and 6-foot-10 Auguste blocking his vision with arms raised and no body contact.
Neither team was as composed down the stretch as head coaches Brey and Roy Williams would have liked. After a pair of free throws by Grant with 6:25 remaining gave the Irish an eight-point lead, he picked up his third foul 30 seconds later, his fourth at the 4:08 mark, and his fifth with 2:07 left. Exit Grant after missing seven of his eight field-goal attempts, including all four of his three-pointers (although he was 6-of-6 from the line).
“That was really a step forward for this group, to do it without Jerian,” Brey said.
Auguste missed a shot underneath the basket with 5:30 remaining. Jackson shot an uncontested air ball from three-point range at 4:23. Grant and Connaughton each turned it over during the next two minutes. Vasturia missed a three.
Meanwhile, North Carolina was having difficulty completing the comeback with veteran Tar Heel J.P. Tokoto called for traveling and the rest of Williams’ squad unable to put the ball in the hole.
In a battle of attrition, Auguste’s game-winning bucket and Notre Dame’s defensive intensity proved to be the one-point difference.
“It’s something that we knew we could do, deep down inside,” said Connaughton of Notre Dame’s 3-0 start in ACC play, the first time since the Irish joined the Big East in 1995 that they’ve begun conference play unscathed through three games.
“It’s not something that maybe everyone else thought we could do, but it’s something that we’ve been working toward.”
The glaring concern – and astonishing fact, considering Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech and North Carolina in a 53-hour span – is that the last two opponents have out-rebounded the Irish 89-57, including a jaw-dropping 40-11 edge on the offensive glass. It’s a recipe for disaster down the road.
Yet Notre Dame has found a way to remain unbeaten in ACC play because of its outstanding offensive flow, its incredible shot-making ability (through the first 30 minutes Monday night, not the last 10), its vastly-improved athleticism -- which now matches up much better against the ACC -- and a determination to make a difference on the defensive end.
At times, Georgia Tech and North Carolina went with smaller lineups to combat Notre Dame’s multiple assets. It didn’t seem to compromise their chances on the backboards against the Irish, but it was a sign of the opponent having to compensate for Notre Dame’s skill set, which means Brey’s team is dictating the tempo of the game.
“A lot of people have subbed and reacted to us,” said Brey of the lineup adjustments. “We gave up 17 offensive rebounds to Michigan State and won. We gave up 19 to Georgia Tech and won in double overtime, and we gave up 21 tonight.
“(ESPN college basketball analyst) Shane Battier said, ‘What’s the limit?’ I guess we can give up 20 and still escape. Over the course of 65 possessions, guarding us is hard if you’re playing a big lineup.”
It’s a recipe for defeat if not disaster, but if the Irish can simply keep finding ways to garner eight or nine more ACC victories to claim an NCAA bid, it will give them time to come up with some solutions to their rebounding woes.
Connaughton and Auguste grab most of them, and Auguste can be pretty hit-and-miss in that department. Martin Geben and Austin Burgett don’t look like they’re going to do it. Geben, at 265 pounds, can’t jump a lick, and Burgett, despite his length, doesn’t have the heart of a rebounder.
Grant, Jackson and Vasturia have the size and/or strength to come from the backcourt to contribute, but you can’t count on that as an every-possession thing. V.J. Beachem is a shooter and too scrawny to help much on the backboards. Austin Torres – when not overwhelmed by the opponent’s height – will scrap for a few.
If Brey is the slightest bit encouraged by the productivity on the practice floor of 6-foot-5 freshman Bonzie Colson – which was a problem earlier in the season – perhaps the 225-pounder bruiser with the condor’s reach can scoop up some of those sporadic minutes from Burgett.
Some said when the Irish limped to a 6-12 mark in their first season in the ACC that they were constructed more for the Big East, having just arrived from their old digs. Well, they’re now one of the more athletic teams around, probably the most athletic team in Notre Dame history, but they can’t pound with the big boys.
Brey is still tinkering on the makeup of his roster to serve both the athleticism to run and shoot with its foes and the physicality to battle on the boards. It’s a work in progress that will take time.
They’re not perfect, but they’re undefeated in ACC play with a huge road victory over North Carolina, a team that is – when you add up all the talent that comes to Chapel Hill under Williams – poorly coached and unable to maximize their talent. (North Carolina plays basketball like an NBA team, going through the motions at times as if the regular season is utter drudgery.)
As Georgia Tech head coach Brian Gregory said in exasperation Saturday, if you try to take away the three-point shot from the Irish, they’ll kill you driving to the hoop, and if you try to take away the drive, they’ll riddle you from long range.
So they have a shortcoming – a serious shortcoming – that will cost them along the way and likely be the culprit when they’re bounced out of the NCAA tournament.
Wait, Notre Dame and NCAA tournament talk, three games into conference play? No, but the Irish have three big victories in the bank. It would take the collapse of a pretty well-oiled offensive and defensive machine to derail this hard-charging Irish train.
A loss this Saturday to No. 3 Virginia would bring the Irish back down to earth, and a quick return trip to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech next week could rapidly change today’s euphoria.
Miami, at North Carolina State, Duke, at Pittsburgh…all before the end of January. No one is safe in the ACC this year. But the Irish are rolling, and if attrition in the ACC bites them, it surely will take a chunk or three out of its competition as well.
For the moment, Notre Dame is one of the darlings of early-season conference play, and even with their rebounding issues, this a formidable, dangerous basketball team, and one that won’t go down without a fight.
“This group loves playing together,” Brey said. “It’s a group you love coaching every day. To get a road win like this early in the ACC season is really a confidence-builder.”
Not to mention a massively huge step toward returning to the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus.