GREENSBORO, N.C. – Well, if you’re going to blow the entire 20-point lead, you might as well get the entire benefit out of the moment.
No. 3 seed Notre Dame (27-5) lived the full experience Thursday night at Greensboro Coliseum, surging to an scintillating 41-21 first-half lead, only to allow the seemingly insurmountable advantage devolve into a two-point deficit with 6:30 remaining.
The Irish had come too far and learned too many lessons along the way to allow this moment to end in ACC tournament tragedy.
“This is something new, but I think this is something you can added to our resume,” said Irish captain Pat Connaughton, who epitomized the Jekyll and Hyde experience, nailing all five of his first-half shot, including four three-pointers, and then missing all five of his second half shots in Notre Dame’s 70-63 victory over Miami in quarterfinals action Wednesday night.
“It’s something that will help us moving forward. We’ve been down by that much, but you’ve got to fight back to win the game. To be on the other side of it and be able to get it back is something not many teams can do.”
Nor is it something too many teams want to do, although if you’re going to fritter away a 20-point lead with 21:34 left in the game – what the hell – do it up right.
“This group all year has been really poised away from our building,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, whose team is now 10-3 on the season away from Purcell Pavilion.
“The (North) Carolina game on the road, we answered charges. Just last Wednesday, Louisville goes on an 11-0 run (to start the second half)…We won it tonight with our defense. Our defense had to win it for us.”
Indeed, by the time the Irish had out-scored Miami, 21-12, after falling behind 51-49 on a pair of Sheldon McClellan free throws, Notre Dame was pressuring the basketball in the Hurricanes’ half-court sets some 35-feet from the basket.
To win this game, they would have to ignore the fact it took them 11:57 of the second half to convert a basket and put it all on the line on the defensive end of the court.
“It was that attack mentality that we needed to have,” said Connaughton, who scored all 14 of his points in the first half. “It slipped away from us over the course of the second half. We knew in order to win the game, we had to get the momentum back. It was just something you had to do no matter what it took.”
In many respects, we witnessed the continuation of the process of the passing of the torch from Connaughton and fifth-year senior Jerian Grant to sophomores Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia, and junior Zach Auguste.
Jackson was a tempo setter from the outset, and the Irish ultimately needed every bit of it to assure a softer landing after the Hurricane surge. Jackson scored five points and pulled down four rebounds by the first TV timeout while Vasturia – who had been hooked up to an IV earlier in the day due to illness – nailed a three-pointer less than a minute into the game and scored eight of Notre Dame’s 14 points after the Irish lost the lead.
Auguste got into the act as well, attacking the basket and finishing with 11 points and nine rebounds when the Irish needed someone to make something happen.
“I was just trying to set the tone for my team,” said Jackson, who at one point could be seen and heard sternly lecturing Connaughton on the court during a timeout as he tried to shake the Irish captain out of his funk.
“I knew we had to get out to a great start. I just wanted to help motivate our team and play as hard as I could for these seniors and this group of guys. The great first half gave us a little bit of a cushion in the second half.”
Jackson finished with 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting while Vasturia tossed in a team-high 16 points on 4-of-8 shooting, including 3-of-6 from three-point range and 5-of-6 from the line while holding McClellan – Miami’s leading scorer -- to 0-of-5 from beyond the arc.
“We were settling,” said Vasturia of Notre Dame’s 22-point deficit over a 15:04 span. “Miami did a good job and they were able to get in transition, but we finally turned the momentum.”
And in so doing, the Irish turned it into a mini-track meet, spearheaded by Grant, who was just itching to reverse the slide by getting the Irish on the run.
“I thought we had to get out in transition,” said Grant, whose length-of-the-court drive with 8:03 left in the game finally gave the Irish their first basket of the second half.
“We started to struggle against that zone. So just to be able to get out in transition and get some easier looks was important. The zone was frustrating for me. I couldn’t get the looks I wanted. The ball screens…the guards were just switching. Just to be able to run a little bit helped me out.”
It was precisely the kind of response that Brey was seeking as the painful sputtering of the offense sucked the air out of the Notre Dame section in the Greensboro Coliseum.
Brey was a proud father after the game as he anticipated a Virginia-North Carolina/Notre Dame-Duke ACC Final Four.
“I told Seth Greenberg coming off the court, I really feel like we’re in the ACC now,” Brey said. “To come out (Friday) night in the semifinals with three of the long-standing, founding members of the ACC, I feel like we’re in it. It’s a proud moment for us.”
And more than a bit harrowing getting there.