Mike Krzyzewski’s 1,000th victory suddenly seemed so far away.
Loss No. 309 did not.
Nor for that matter did win No. 20 for No. 8 Notre Dame (20-2, 8-1) and the 600th victory in Purcell Pavilion history.
The Irish (20-2, 8-1) doused the celebration of Krzyzewski’s historic win with a 77-73 come-from-behind victory, which has become a blueprint for Mike Brey’s squad.
“I ain’t going to mess with it,” said Brey of Notre Dame’s ninth victory out of 20 after trailing by at least seven points. “That’s why I don’t want to over-coach and say, ‘Hey, we need to be in front; we need to have the lead.’”
This time, the hole was 10 points with 10:58 remaining to the Blue Devils (17-3, 4-3), who overcame their own deficit in Madison Square Garden Sunday to defeat St. John’s.
Led by the spectacular play of Jerian Grant and captain Pat Connaughton – who literally picked himself up off the floor after his head slammed on the hardwood midway through the second half – the Irish went on a 12-0 run to take the lead in a game that was tied an astonishing 12 times with the lead exchanging hands nine times.
Grant -- who scored 23 points, dished out a career-high 12 assists with six rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots -- found sophomore Steve Vasturia in the corner with 22.2 seconds remaining when everybody in the building – and likely the millions watching – thought Grant would let it fly.
After all, it was Grant who picked up his own lost dribble with 1:07 remaining and managed to hit a runner to give Notre Dame a 73-70 lead. After Duke pulled to within one on two free throws by Quinn Cook, Grant found Vasturia in the corner in front of the Notre Dame bench for his only successful shot in five attempts.
“What an awesome feeling,” Vasturia said. “Seeing the ball go through the basket and then going down and defending to win the game, it was a great feeling.”
Notre Dame overcame the brilliant Duke backcourt of Cook and freshman Tyus Jones, who combined for 29 points with both converting 5-of-11 shots from the field.
When that dynamic backcourt wasn’t pressuring the Irish, it was 6-foot-11, 270-pound freshman Jahlil Okafor, who tossed in 22 points on 10-of-18 shooting while snagging 17 rebounds in 36 minutes.
But Okafor also finished just 2-of-7 from the free-throw line for a Duke team that converted just 10-of-20, including 7-of-15 in the second half.
“I thought we played winning basketball,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m not down on our team about that. But we have to keep learning. We’re a young group.
“Jah played a terrific game. If he hits those free throws, then we’d be talking about Jah having the amazing game, not Grant.”
Instead, talk centered on Grant, Connaughton, Vasturia and 6-foot-5, 226-pound freshman Bonzie Colson, who replaced Zach Auguste when the Irish big man ran into some early foul trouble. Colson came on to score eight points and grab three rebounds in 15 minutes, frequently presenting Okafor with match-up issues.
“One thing about Bonzie, he is not afraid, man,” Brey said. “He loves the moment. I thought he defended the heck out of Okafor. He bothered him with his length and his quickness.
“I told him yesterday: ‘Bonz, at Georgia Tech, you got one bloody nose. You may need to get two or three on Wednesday. Can I count on you?’ He goes, ‘No problem, coach.’”
Brey also was able to count on Auguste, particularly in the second half, when the 6-foot-10 junior scored eight points and grabbed four rebounds to finish with 14 and six.
Connaughton didn’t come away with a bloody nose, but he did get tangled with Okafor with 12:49 remaining and the Irish trailing by seven. The packed house at Purcell Pavilion went deadly silent. Connaughton picked himself off the floor and needed time to gather himself as the Blue Devils took a 10-point lead.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why is a seven-footer up-faking on a 6-5 guard?’” Connaughton recalled. “I just remember going up and my legs were cut out from under me. I was a little nervous. I was hoping I’d land on my back but that didn’t work out.”
Meanwhile, Brey was asking moments later where Connaughton was. Connaughton was in the nearby tunnel trying to gather himself. When he returned, Notre Dame went on a 12-0 run to turn a 65-55 deficit into a 67-65 lead.
But it was Grant who made the two decisive plays down the stretch, first on a runner and then on the brilliant pass to Vasturia for the crucial three-pointer, which offset a pair of missed free throws by V.J. Beachem and one-of-two by Colson moments later.
“I just took what they gave me,” said Grant of the crucial pass. “I knew I could get off a shot, I kind of turned my back, and I was going to shoot a fadeaway. I got up in the air and Steve was wide open.”
It was just one of several brilliant plays by Grant, who not only has put himself in position for ACC Player of the Year honors, but first-team All-America honors as well.
“He’s putting himself in position to be a very wealthy man,” Brey summarized.
With the victory, the Irish reached the 20-win plateau on the earliest date in its history, surpassing the 20th victory on Feb. 9, 2011. The victory was Notre Dame’s first as a top 10 team over another top 10 team since the No. 10 Irish knocked off No. 4 Pittsburgh in 2003.
Next up for the Irish are those same Panthers, who have lost 15 of their last 31 home games after dominating at the Petersen Events Center.
“We should never panic when we’re down now because it’s happened a bunch and we’ve come back,” Brey said. “I think we’ll be able to handle about anything. It’s a pretty mentally tough group.”
Brey raised his record versus top 10 teams at home to 14-7.