Irish fit with Tobacco Road bluebloods

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Notre Dame/Mike Brey has defeated Duke three times within the last two campaigns with a chance to sting North Carolina for the second time this season in tonight’s ACC tournament championship at Greensboro Coliseum.

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Embarrassment, humiliation, shame.

Name the powerful word or phrase to encapsulate how Duke made Notre Dame feel at Cameron Indoor Stadium six weeks ago and you can’t go wrong. They all applied.

Duke shot to a 43-13 lead and the centrifuge-like force that is the Blue Devils amidst the frenzy spit the Irish out. The end result was a 90-60 bone-rattling loss.

“They kicked our butts,” said Notre Dame sophomore point guard Demetrius Jackson.

While the response to the gale force that blew through Cameron wasn’t nearly as definitive on the scoreboard, Notre Dame’s answer a month-and-a-half later was just as powerful in the heart of ACC basketball country Friday night at Greensboro Coliseum.

Notre Dame shot to an 18-5 lead eight-and-a-half minutes in by putting itself in attack mode. The Irish then withstood multiple second-half Duke charges and convincingly walked away with a 74-64 victory to advance to the ACC tournament championship Saturday night against No. 5 seed North Carolina, which, incidentally, took a similarly impressive path to the finale by beating No. 1 seed Virginia.

“I’m so thrilled,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, the master architect behind the aggressive mode by which his team attacked Duke.

“We were in six semifinals in the Big East. Never got (to the championship). To get here in the second year (in the ACC) and to go through Duke on their turf…If we beat North Carolina, man, we went through the bluebloods to do it.”

As a second-year member of the ACC in its first tournament championship in 20 tries, Notre Dame’s blood may not be quite as blue, but it was coursing through their veins Friday night as the Irish left no doubt as to a) which team was better on this night and b) which team deserved to come away with the victory.

“The first 24 minutes, we didn’t know who we were coaching,” said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose Blue Devils clearly lacked the focus and burning desire to succeed that Notre Dame had from the outset.

“It was an out of body experience.”

Bodies were colliding in the paint, particularly Duke’s conference and possible NCAA Player of the Year Jahlil Okafor, who finished with 28 points and probably could have scored 40, particularly if he had had more success from the free-throw line, where he missed six of eight.

The officiating crew allowed Okafor to pound his way through the paint like a fullback running between the tackles. It prompted Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste to foul out of the game in just 25 minutes of playing time. But it was a tone setter, along with freshman Bonzie Colson, who came in and scored 17 points, 14 of which came in the first half when he and Jackson successfully played the Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside roles.

“The key was we defended both nights to win,” said Brey, referring back to the staunch second-half defensive effort against Miami a night earlier when the Irish allowed a 20-point lead to devolve into a two-point deficit with 6:30 remaining before out-scoring the Hurricanes 21-12 down the stretch.

“We didn’t want to double (Okafor). We’re 2-1 with that philosophy. I’ll take that because when they light you up from the three-point line – as they did in Cameron – they get that thing up in the 80s, and you’re not going to keep up with them.

“Then we fouled them strategically the last four minutes. We had Bonzie hit ‘em a couple times and that paid off.”

Brey called Auguste an “unsung hero” in the victory. Auguste showed frustration at times as squaring up on Oklafor only led to another whistle. But he played 25 effective minutes, finishing with eight points, six rebounds, two blocks, two assists and a steal.

“I didn’t get much (feedback) from the officials,” Auguste said. “I didn’t want to exert too much energy to try to talk to them and get a bad image. We just had to play.

“If it takes me giving up my body and my fifth foul to get a win, that’s what I was going to do.”

There were plenty of accolades to go around, beginning with Jackson, who has burst onto the scene in year two -- after a shaky rookie campaign -- to live up to the McDonald’s All-American billing that is part and parcel for virtually every player that accepts a scholarship at Duke and North Carolina.

“He’s become almost like a third captain,” said Brey of Jackson. “His voice is really powerful. He’s challenged Jerian (Grant) and Pat (Connaughton). He has no problem getting on their ass. So we’ve got a third voice setting the tone. His drives early get us in such an attack frame of mind.”

With the Blue Devils face-guarding Grant, and Connaughton suddenly turning cold from three-point range beginning in the second half of the Miami game, the passing of the torch to the younger players has begun while the Irish continue to improve and look to be a real post-season force.

Sophomore Steve Vasturia picked up the scoring slack left by Jackson and Colson in the first half. When Duke finally reduced the deficit to single digits near the midway point of the second half – one of 10 times -- Vasturia hit a three, banked in a pull-away jumper, and drove to the basket to score seven points in a 3:40 span to bump the advantage back up to double digits.

There’s also Vasturia’s unquenchable thirst to play the role of stopper on the defensive end. Duke freshman Justise Winslow – who scored all 11 of his points in the second half – missed both of his first-half shots and played just 13 minutes as the Irish built a double-digit lead.

“Winslow drove (on) us early in Cameron and hurt us,” Brey said. “That’s why we started Steve on him. I thought he put a chest on him and he’s really clutch.

“He wants to take the big (shot) just like (Thursday) night, and he’s done it over and over again. He’s a glue guy. He’s just so easy to play with. He’s a very confident player right now.”

With Auguste and Colson banging in the middle, and even sophomore V.J. Beachem hitting a big three-pointer with 19.1 seconds left in the first half, Notre Dame is getting significant, game-winning contributions from each of the players in the seven-man rotation heading into the championship game against North Carolina.

And when the Irish needed to seal the victory, they converted an impressive 22-of-25 from the free-throw line, including all seven by Grant, all three by Jackson, 7-of-8 by Colson and 5-of-6 by Connaughton.

“We wanted to drive the ball and attack,” said Connaughton, who drove the final nail home with 1:12 remaining on a shot-clock buzzer-beater. “(Thursday) night, we settled for some jump shots, myself included. I take a lot of that on myself. We settled for some threes and some quick threes.

“Tonight, we thought we had an ability to drive the ball, and even if they were great defensively, it would open up jump shots. We were able to get to the rim and get to the foul line.”

Connaughton was well prepared to turn to the “nobody thought we’d be here” mantra that inspires all non-Nos. 1-2 seeds this time of the year.

“On TV and social media, you hear and see who they thought was going to win the tournament, and Notre Dame wasn’t mentioned once besides the guys in this locker room and some Notre Dame fans,” Connaughton said.

“We wanted to come out and show the world that we’re here and we’ve changed the Notre Dame basketball culture.”

Notre Dame has “cultured up” along the way in 2014-15, just in time to take on the blue bloods on Tobacco Road as the blue Saturday night in Greensboro Coliseum turns to Carolina blue.

“They’re playing really well,” said Brey of Roy Williams’ Tar Heels. “They’re in gear. They’re a very confident team.

“They had 21 offensive rebounds against us down there. We escaped. I don’t think we can escape if they get 21 on us (again). But we’re a better defensive team than we were then. We were poised. That was the first time we held off a road charge. We really grew there.”

The Irish haven’t stopped growing in the fertile soil along Tobacco Road.


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories