"It was an uphill battle…We kept fighting, kept fighting…It's a tough matchup for us."
The lamentations above have heretofore followed the typical tough loss endured by Notre Dame, especially when the normally ground-bound Irish are matched against one of the nation's athletically gifted, recruiting-rich programs.
Monday night in Chapel Hill, it was instead the blue bloods of North Carolina left exasperated at the efforts of the conquering Irish.
As road underdogs of 8.5 points, Notre Dame was the clear aggressor in a 71-70 victory, trailing just twice (including 2-0) while leading by as many as 11 points, often by more than eight points. For the bulk of the contest, Mike Brey's Fighting Irish were better than their favored foes -- on both sides of the court.
The Irish, a team that plays four guards (all under six-foot-six) around one big man lost the battle in the paint by just six points, 30-24 -- despite facing the long, four-forward/one-guard lineup presented by the Tar Heels. They were nearly deadlocked in the game's minimal transition opportunities (UNC 10, ND 9) and the hosts never led their guests by more than two points.
The Irish guards made the Tar Heels tall guys adjust to them. "I thought it was a interesting that they did end up going small, and so did Georgia Tech," said Brey post-game.
It was a wire-to-wire victory by the Irish, a team just two days removed from a double overtime victory over a physical Georgia Tech squad in a contest that purportedly took too much out of Brey's bunch to compete in a contest with a collection of thoroughbreds.
On a related note: total dunks -- Notre Dame four (that's unofficially 67 on the season), North Carolina two.
The Irish likely remain a backup big man away from serious contention (in this case "serious" equals "beyond the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament"). But it might be time to reevaluate their place in the nation's best conference.
The ACC's second-best defensive rebounder stands six-feet-five and weighs about as much as Tommy Rees. The conference's best three-point shooter is likewise the league's 15th-top scorer (though fourth on his own team).
And he's the rock that holds together the nation's most improved basketball team through 15 games.
"(Pat) Connaughton came out and just attacked us off the dribble," said Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams. "Just a big-time three-point shooter. It's a tough matchup for us, having Brice (Johnson) or Isaiah (Hicks) trying to guard him, but that's what it is, that's the game of basketball."
Notre Dame and Connaughton play the game of basketball as it was intended: crisp movement of the basketball, shared and handled by four, not one. Open shots are found more often than not -- and the above-the-rim element is, at last, part of the equation.
Connaughton aids them in all of the above, but above all, its his toughness -- mental and physical -- that allow for wins on the road vs. a quality foe.
"I think he missed one shot," said Tar Heels spark off the bench Theo Vinson. (Connaughton was 4 for 7 from long range). He can shoot the ball and we knew it was going to be tough, but you just got to fight. They are leading the nation in field goal percentage. We knew they were going to make shots but we just wanted to dig in, keep fighting, keep fighting."
Unlike season's past, Notre Dame has myriad pieces with which to work, but they all work because of their senior captain.
Notre Dame finished with Monday's contest with 26 rebounds. North Carolina, 21. Amazing, right? Oh yeah, the Tar Heels total designates only those corralled on the offensive end.
The Irish were out-rebounded 43-26 and a whopping 21-6 on the offensive glass, this on the heels of a 46-31 board bludgeoning (and 19-5 offensively) two days prior against Georgia Tech.
"It's amazing with the offensive rebounds, we got 21 and they got six, yet the biggest play of the game was their offensive rebound and put-back," said Williams of the contest's final field goal, a carom collected by emerging junior Zach Auguste that erased the visitor's brief 70-69 deficit.
Notre Dame has offset its chief (fatal?) flaw to date with quality first-shot defense and a relentless offensive show. They can drive, shoot from deep, and move it with anyone.
But the backboards belong to everyone else.
"We gave up 17 offensive rebounds to Michigan State and won in overtime," said Brey. "We gave up 19 to Georgia Tech and won in double overtime and we gave up 21 tonight. Over the course of 65 possessions, guarding us offensively I think it's hard if you're playing a big lineup. We got some really clean looks, we pass it well, and we made enough shots from outside the arc to kind of get us confident."
That's how they'll enter Saturday night's game in South Bend vs. undefeated, No. 3 Virginia -- defending ACC Champions, No 2 nationally in field goal percentage defense (UNC is No. 7) and two-time murderers of the Irish last season (68-53 and 70-49).
It's the season's most difficult home matchup, but thanks to the Irish efforts Monday night in Chapel Hill (the season's third-toughest road tilt per our rankings) Notre Dame enters the contest playing with house money.
Can they collect?