GREENSBORO, N.C. – Given Notre Dame’s ugly early-exit from the ACC tournament a year ago, it’s difficult to have imagined this.
The Irish – one of the surprise teams this season, not just in the ACC, but in the entire country – will play for the right to take a crack at the most prestigious conference tournament championship Saturday night in Greensboro Coliseum.
“When I got to Notre Dame and we beat Syracuse and Georgetown, those were program-endorsing wins as we were trying to build a program,” reflected Irish head coach Mike Brey late Thursday night following Notre Dame’s heart-in-your-throat 70-63 victory over Miami.
“The same thing this year. Beating Duke and North Carolina, that makes us look like we belong in this league. It’s a thrill for me to come out in the semifinals with these other programs and play Duke. It’s a proud moment for us.”
Make no mistake, the Irish (27-5) belong here. Whether they have what it takes to survive a red-hot Duke team – now 29-3 after a 77-53 pillaging of North Carolina State earlier Thursday evening – is another story.
But with a 14-4 regular-season record in ACC play, including wins versus the Blue Devils at home, the Tar Heels on the road, North Carolina State in Raleigh and Louisville in the Yum! Center, at least three of the four best teams in the conference this season are among the final four teams still standing.
One could argue for the Cardinals over the Tar Heels, although North Carolina’s late 10-point run spoke volumes and gave them the right to battle Virginia for their own spot in the championship game.
In order for the Irish to prove they belong in Saturday’s title game, they’ll have to play a level of basketball against the Blue Devils that few teams have been able to approach, let alone achieve.
Duke has won 12 straight – every game since Notre Dame knocked them off on Jan. 28 – and their play has been predominately scintillating against quality competition.
During its current 12-game winning streak, some of the teams that have fallen to the Blue Devils include Notre Dame (by 30), North Carolina (twice), Syracuse (twice) and ACC No. 1 seed Virginia (in Charlottesville).
The headlines go to ACC Player of the Year Jahlil Okafor, but the level of play by Justise Winslow, the backcourt of Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook, and rising Matt Jones has been scintillating during the six-week stretch of nothing but victories.
“They’re really skilled offensively,” Brey said. “Can we guard them? That’s the next level of challenge defensively for us.”
The Irish players know they’ll have to be at their best just to compete with the Blue Devils in a Greensboro environment that will be every bit a home-court advantage, if not the zoo that is Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“We have to keep Okafor off the glass and contain him,” said Notre Dame big man Zach Auguste. “We have to get to the basket offensively, continue to play our game and be efficient.”
“We have to come out and defend,” said Irish sophomore Steve Vasturia. “They’re a talented offensive team, so we’ve got to play together on defense. We have to get stops so we can get into an offensive flow.”
The reality of what happened in Durham – a 90-60 loss in which the Irish trailed by 26 at halftime – is something Notre Dame must consider at face value. Denying what happened won’t help the Irish climb the mountain Friday night.
“We had a great game at our home, but when we went down there, they killed us,” said senior captain Pat Connaughton. “They came out and bit us. From the opening jump, they had amore energy than we did.
“But to be honest, I think that’s something that will motivate us. They made a statement where most people think the one we made (a 77-73 victory at home) was a fluke. We couldn’t be happier to get a rematch against them. We’ll have to come out and play our best.”
Notre Dame’s margin for error on both ends of the court is minimal.
“They’re a great team,” said sophomore point guard Demetrius Jackson. “We’re going to have to play our A game. We just want to be aggressive and keep doing the things we’re doing well.
“When we really needed it (in the second half against Miami), we did a great job defensively. We just need to do what we did offensively in the first half more consistently.”
Does Notre Dame belong with the blue bloods of the ACC? They’ve earned the right to be in the semifinals. Whether the Irish deserve to still be in town Saturday night is the challenge at hand late tonight in Greensboro Coliseum.