1. UNRECOGNIZED, UNSUNG, UNDETERRED
Jerian Grant had received his MVP trophy. Steve Vasturia (the silent assassin), Pat Connaughton (the rock), and Demetrius Jackson (the stone-cold, killer) had been honored as first, first, and second-team All-Tournament players, respectively.
And with them stood the lone ranger.
Six-feet-ten, drenched in sweat, hugged by a head coach that has used nearly three full seasons of every coaching method known to mankind to harness the still-developing talent that is Zach Auguste -- Notre Dame's unsung hero of the 2015 ACC Final Four
"He was great last night against Okafor," said Irish head coach Mike Brey of his junior big man. "He gave himself up and fouled out playing post defense and he's (recently) taken it to a whole other level. I think he’s another major reason we won this thing. He is really becoming consistent, focused, I’m thrilled how he’s playing right now, and he was great both nights."
Auguste finished Saturday's title tilt with 16 points and 13 rebounds -- 11 and 7 of which came in the second half. For the better part of of 30 minutes Notre Dame couldn't buy a rebound. For the remaining 10, Auguste seemingly grabbed all of them.
"Notre Dame is probably, as I said when we played them the first time, and this time too, Notre Dame is probably the toughest match-up for us in the league," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. "Because we try to play two big guys and Notre Dame is playing one medium-sized guy (Auguste) as their biggest guy. He played well too. 16 points, 13 rebounds. They had five guys that played really well."
Fittingly, Auguste had only others on his mind post-game.
"We wanted to do it for (Brey) and especially for Jerian and PC," said Auguste. "They’ve been through so much. We want to dedicate it to the seniors. They’ve been great leaders and they’ve helped us out so much."
On the ACC biggest stage, Auguste returned the favor.
2. (THE DEFENSIVE) MVP
Something needed to change. When a team converts field goals on 11 consecutive possessions and 12 of 13 to start the second half, a shakeup is in order.
So with 9:42 remaining in the ACC Championship game and his suddenly staggered Irish squad in a nine-point hole, Mike Brey had seen enough. Enough of a zone defense that seemed necessary to combat North Carolina's decisive height advantage.
It was time to play man-to-man against the taller, quicker, red-hot Tar Heels.
Might as well die with your boots on.
"At some point I said we're going to have to play man-to-man to get out of here and we're going to have to dig in right now," said Brey. "I said, 'Get a kill.' (A kill is three consecutive defensive stops.) Get me a kill and the whole complexion of this game changes."
Notre Dame got a kill. Two of them, to be exact. Six consecutive North Carolina possessions provided zero points. From unconscious to incompetent.
Credit the Irish defense, notably team and tournament MVP Jerian Grant.
"All credit goes to Jerian," said Notre Dame's usual defensive stopper out top, Demetrius Jackson. "He guarded the best player on their team for the last part of the game and shut him down."
That player was Marcus Paige, and the pre-season Player of the Year candidate had just gone off on the Irish to the tune of 12 points on four shots.
And then. Nothing. At least not until Notre Dame had turned a nine-point deficit into a 12-point lead over a seven-minute span.
"I think Coach has done a great job of instilling in us: how are we going to respond?" said Connaughton of North Carolina's hot second-half start. "We knew that we needed to do it on the defensive end. That defense fuels our offense. That’s something that we’ve really tried to build this program on this season, and it’s something that allowed us to get out in transition and allowed us to score like that so quickly."
From a 63-54 deficit at the 9:58 mark to an 80-66 lead seven minutes later isn't merely "quickly."
"You've seen a lot of good offensive displays," said a beaming Brey on the floor post-game. "Not like that. Not on this stage, with the stakes so high.
"That. Was. Off the charts."
And it started with defense -- courtesy the nation's best offensive weapon.
3. PLANTING THE SEED
There was a moment in late December, innocuous at the time to most, but notable nonetheless, at least to those that follow the game-by-game machinations of a basketball team.
The moment was a missed three-point field goal attempt in a contest that Notre Dame eventually won by 25 points over Northern Illinois.
From right to left around the arc the ball moved: Grant to Jackson to Connaughton to Vasturia. Let it fly…in-and-out.
Steve Vasturia's three-point misfire was noticed only because of the inherent basketball beauty that preceded it.
Three players passing up a decent look so their teammate could get a better one.
Saturday night in Greensboro, with the game's momentum hanging in the balance, and the same four players deftly flipping passes from one side of the court to the next, Steve Vasturia did not miss.
This time, from left to right: Vasturia in the left corner, to Grant on the wing, to Connaughton out top, to Jackson on the right wing, and back to Vasturia -- in the opposite corner from which he started.
"You knew it was going in," said Brey of Vasturia's triple that pulled the Irish even with the Tar Heels, 64-64, just one minute and fifteen seconds after they had trailed by nine. "We're tough. We're mentally and physically tough."
Vasturia referred to it as an open shot. It was much more.
"It’s something we work on in practice. Our assistant coaches are fabulous at getting us game shots, even if it’s just in shooting drills," said Connaughton. "We work on one more pass. I think Steve was the one to knock down the one to tie it where we ripped the ball across the perimeter for literally three, four passes. I think that was something that we just knew it was going in. I held up three fingers before he even shot the ball because we take 'one more' to the next level."
In this case, practice made perfect.