The first extended trip through Tobacco Road and the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference was a rocky one for Notre Dame.
It was the 2013-14 season – Notre Dame’s first year in the ACC – and without academically-ineligible Jerian Grant to bail the Irish out of offensive jams, Tobacco Road was filled with potholes.
With the exception of a manhandling at Virginia, it was nothing but close road loss after close road loss. Single-digit losses at Georgia Tech (by 5), Maryland (by 8), Florida State (by 2), Wake Forest (by 7), No. 1 Syracuse (by 6), Miami (by 7), and No. 14 North Carolina (by 2) became redundant and the earmark of Notre Dame’s first season in the ACC.
Times have changed dramatically since then. The return of Grant in 2014-15, coupled with the maturity of senior captain Pat Connaughton, sparked a 180-degree turnaround in Notre Dame’s second season in the ACC, which maintained momentum right through Saturday’s trip to Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium where a resilient Irish (12-5, 3-2) withstood every Blue Devil run to claim a 95-91 victory over Mike Krzyzewski’s No. 9-ranked squad.
The victory gave the Irish their ninth victory in their last 12 ACC road trips.
“We weren’t very good in this environment last year,” said Brey, referring to the 90-60 loss last January when a 43-7 Blue Devil run was the avalanche that buried the Irish.
“But the returning guys that had been in it handled it with great poise. It’s a great day of growth for us here early in the season.”
Brey’s teams have defeated Duke four of the last five meetings, including last year’s 74-64 victory in Greensboro in the ACC tournament en route to the conference championship, which became reality with a 90-82 come-from-behind win over North Carolina.
Notre Dame’s growth has been rapid since losing eight of nine on the road in the ACC. Last year, right out of the gate, the Irish tagged No. 18 North Carolina in Chapel Hill, 71-70, the first of four straight ACC road wins to start the 2014-15 season.
In addition, there was the three-point overtime win at North Carolina State, the two-point win at Clemson and the impressive 12-point victory at No. 16 Louisville. Mixed in was another home conquest of Duke.
Since losing five of six overall to Tobacco Road teams (Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest) in 2013-14, the Irish have won seven of eight, including a combined 5-1 mark against Duke (3-1) and North Carolina (2-0).
The conference road surge since the start of the 2014-15 season is commensurate to Brey’s pattern of success away from Purcell Pavilion. Now in his 16th season of conference play with the Irish, Brey is a more-than-solid 60-71 away from home, and 59-63 if you throw out the 2013-14 outlier season.
Brey’s resume is littered with huge conference road victories, including No. 23 Pittsburgh and No. 13 Miami in 2001-02, No. 24 Syracuse in 2003-04, No. 18 Villanova in 2007-08, No. 11 Georgetown in 2009-10, No. 2 Pittsburgh and No. 16 Connecticut in 2010-11, No. 11 Louisville and No. 24 Connecticut in 2011-12, No. 21 Cincinnati and No. 20 Pittsburgh in 2012-13, No. 18 North Carolina and No. 16 Louisville last year, and now No. 9 Duke this season.
With six ACC road games remaining, the Irish should get at least one more crack at a ranked team away from home when they travel to Miami to take on the current No. 8 Hurricanes.
Clemson, after a shaky start to the 2015-16 season, also could be ranked on Feb. 8 when the Irish travel to South Carolina to battle the Tigers, who are 5-1 in ACC play with consecutive wins over Syracuse, No. 16 Louisville, No. 9 Duke and No. 8 Miami.
“We had great poise,” said Brey following Saturday’s victory over Duke. “I’m really proud of our group.
“It’s a great win and it’s a resume win as we’re trying to build a resume for the NCAA tournament.”
MIKE BREY’S CONFERENCE ROAD RECORD
BIG EAST TOTAL: 50-60
ACC TOTAL: 10-11
BIG EAST/ACC COMBINED: 60-71
* Signifies qualified for NCAA tournament