GREENSBORO, N.C. – They had talked about the shirts that they’d wear, the design of the hats that they would joyfully plop on their heads, and the actual process of cutting down the nets.
But with 11:36 remaining and Brice Johnson scoring one of his 10 field goals on 12 attempts, the dream wasn’t just fading fast. It looked as if the very next possession, the deficit would expand to double digits, and with 99.9 percent of the people in attendance screaming their Carolina Blue brains out, the romp would be on.
“We looked at the clock, we knew we had to go right away,” said Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant, “and we didn’t want to lose.”
In one of the most remarkable offensive and defensive displays in Notre Dame basketball history – particularly considering the moment, the setting and the opponent – the Irish (29-5) went on a 24-2 run and scored 41 points in less than 12 minutes to capture the 62nd annual ACC tournament in just their second appearance in college basketball’s most prestigious conference affair.
No. 3 seed Notre Dame’s 90-82 victory over No. 5 seed North Carolina is nothing short of a ground-breaking, program-altering accomplishment.
“There’s a little toughness and edge about this group,” said an ecstatic Irish head coach Mike Brey. “We have really got a tough group, and our toughness level is the highest it’s ever been, mentally and physically.”
Anyone who witnessed what transpired in Greensboro Coliseum late Saturday night simply cannot deny it. With Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson and Isaiah Hicks doing damage inside for the Tar Heels, and then Marcus Paige and Joel Berry sniping from the outside, not only did it look as if the Irish were going to surrender North Carolina’s 18th ACC tournament title, but ultimately it would be done in easy fashion.
Less than nine minutes into the second half, the Tar Heels had out-scored the Irish, 24-10. At one point, North Carolina scored on 12 straight possessions.
But the Irish did not lose their focus. They mixed in enough baskets to stay within striking distance, and then all offensive hell broke loose.
V.J. Beachem hit a three to get things going. Grant hit a couple of free throws. Demetrius Jackson canned a three from the corner, and Steve Vasturia’s steal-and-score made it a three-point game.
Then, in typical Notre Dame fashion, the ball touched four sets of hands quickly, the last of which were Vasturia’s, who nailed a three-pointer from the corner and the romp – Notre Dame’s, not North Carolina’s, which appeared imminent moments earlier -- was on.
Pat Connaughton hit a three. Zach Auguste helped out defensively, made a steal and dribbled more than half the length of the court for a jam. Auguste then hit both ends of a one-and-one. Jackson drove the lane. Connaughton hit another three. Auguste tipped home a missed stuff by Grant, and then Connaughton jammed one home.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame held North Carolina without a score for six straight possessions – a double kill in Notre Dame parlance – and destiny was fulfilled.
“We’re such a cocky offensive team,” Brey said. “We brush off getting scored on and go, ‘Next!’
“There’s been a special vibe about this group since we came to town the other night. I felt great about tonight. I felt good about (Thursday) night (against Duke), and for us to do it through Duke and Carolina on Tobacco Road, it’s just amazing.”
The joy Brey was feeling during the post-game was off the chart. Here’s a guy vastly underappreciated by his fan base. They rarely fill Purcell Pavilion, and even when they do, the home-court advantage is negligible. Year-in and year-out, he does more with less than just about any coach in the country.
His lack of post-season success is what contributes to the lethargic fan base, and yet if the fan base would appreciate what he has accomplished and support one of the prettiest products in the college game today, perhaps their post-season successes would increase.
“I’m going to use a (former Maryland head coach) Lefty Driesell line,” Brey said. “Lefty Driesell won this thing down here on Tobacco Road, and he said, ‘I’m going to bolt the trophy to the hood of my car and drive around Tobacco Road.’
“I’m going to start in Asheville in June with my Buick Enclave, and I’m going to drive Asheville, Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh-Durham and Wilmington with this freakin’ trophy on the hood of my car so everybody on Tobacco Road can see it.”
While the Irish players didn’t exactly have their celebration plans thought out nearly as thoroughly as Brey, they did take the time to gush about the experience.
“Without those stops on defense, we never would have had the offense,” said Connaughton, who finished with 20 points while recapturing his shooting stroke on 4-of-5 shooting from three-point range.
“We’ve been trying to change the culture of this program to have the young guys really buy into the fact that defense is what really gets you where you want to go. Defense will fuel the offense. You’ll be able to run in transition and get those easy baskets that everyone loves to get.”
Grant, named tournament MVP following his 24-point, 10-assist performance that included 15-of-18 from the line, most of which came down the stretch, has helped Notre Dame basketball reach this transcendent stage.
“When Pat started knocking down shots, I looked up at the scoreboard and we were on a run,” Grant said. “The other team’s heads were down, and that’s when I felt like we were going to get the win.
“We have such a great offensive team that at any moment, any of us can go off. At the same time, defensively, during a 24-2 stretch, allowing two points in a run is special.”
Indeed, everybody contributed to the cause. All five starters scored in double figures. Beachem’s three launched the big run. Bonzie Colson didn’t play as big of a role as he has in recent games – he had scored at least 16 points in four of the previous six games – but Auguste had 16 points and 13 rebounds.
Jackson scored 11 and led the way a night earlier against Duke. Vasturia – the baby-faced assassin, as Brey called him – nailed a three and had a steal-and-score as the big run commenced. Vasturia finished with 14 points.
On top of it all, after making 22-of-25 free throws in a shocking victory over Duke Friday, Notre Dame converted another 28-of-32 for an 87.7 percentage against two of college basketball’s bedrocks.
“This is history and that was my goal coming in here,” said Jackson, a rare McDonald’s All-American at Notre Dame. “This is what I said to my class. Let’s come in and change the culture, let’s come in and make history, and we did it.”
A little less than 24 hours after the post-game celebration, the Irish would learn where and when this amazing odyssey continues in the NCAA tournament.
Did their explosion through the ACC tournament propel them to a No. 2 seed? Perhaps not, but at the very least, the Irish should be aligned regionally with the strong possibility of a Columbus, Ohio/Cleveland/Indianapolis journey if they can keep the magic alive.
“It’s something that puts us in position to do more things that this program has never done,” Connaughton said. “That’s what we wanted to do at the beginning of the year. We were able to do that in the regular season, we were able to do that in this tournament, and now we want to stay hungry.”
For three days in Greensboro, it was all the Irish could eat. Their next meal can’t come soon enough.