WASHINGTON – Even with a 10-1 record against the Tobacco Road teams, including six out of seven against heavyweights Duke and North Carolina, Mike Brey could feel the doubt amidst the ambient noise surrounding the Notre Dame basketball program.
“I told (the players) last night, ‘Even though we beat (Duke) in their building (in January), I don’t think anybody gives us much of a chance,’” said Brey following Notre Dame’s 84-79 overtime victory over the Blue Devils to advance to Friday’s ACC tournament semifinal clash with No. 1 seed North Carolina.
“If you think about the nucleus of our guys here, all they’ve known is beating them. That’s the norm. I actually said to my brother, ‘If we don’t beat Duke today and make it five out of six, my fans are going to be upset.’ Kind of like, ‘What happened?’”
What happened was one of the great comebacks in Notre Dame basketball history, within shouting distance if not in the same company as ending UCLA’s 88-game winning streak more than four decades ago, especially considering the opponent and the setting.
Trailing by 16 points – 64-48 – with less than 11 minutes remaining, the Irish embarked on a 14-0 run, took the lead at 2:34 on a three-pointer by V.J. Beachem, fell behind by three again with under a minute-and-a-half remaining, and sent the game into overtime on another three-pointer by Beachem with 1:05 left in regulation.
Notre Dame then scored the first five points of overtime -- including another three-pointer by Beachem -- to claim one of the most improbable, clutch victories ever by a Fighting Irish hoops squad.
“It’s a great feeling, just to know the guys are still looking to find me,” said Beachem, who finished with 19 points on four three-pointers and 7-of-12 from the field.
“They always tell me to shoot the next one, no matter what. So to knock down some big shots is great for my confidence. More importantly, just to get a win like this was huge for our team. We’re excited about the opportunity (Friday) night.”
Beachem likely doesn’t get a chance to shoot those big shots were it not for the dynamic performance of 6-foot-10 senior Zach Auguste, who tied Beachem for the team-lead in scoring with 19 points and grabbed a remarkable 22 of Notre Dame’s 44 rebounds.
Auguste was relentless in his quest to keep Notre Dame’s ACC tournament hopes alive, snagging eight of his caroms on the offensive end.
It was Auguste’s bucket at the 4:29 mark that capped the 14-0 run and pulled the Irish to within two points after trailing by 16 less than seven minutes earlier.
“It was just a matter of resiliency,” Auguste said. “We huddled up, we talked about it, and it would have been easy for us to put our heads down. We came together, knew what we had to do, stepped up and did it.”
Brey has been singing Auguste’s praises for national attention for the better part of a month.
“Zach Auguste is playing as good as anybody in the country,” Brey said. “And then with the energy and emotion and the little bit of crazy (stuff) that he plays with, that’s really good because he scares the other team. He even scares his teammates into playing hard.
“I love his venom and energy and flying all over the place.”
After turning the ball over 14 times within the first 23 minutes of the game, the Irish tightened things up as point guard Demetrius Jackson took control against Duke’s zone defense.
“Just having the will to win,” Jackson said. “We had a great game defensively by getting consecutive stops, and then we had some guys, V.J., hit some big shots. Zach had 22 rebounds…we just did it together.”
Despite 18 turnovers for the game, the Irish had success against the zone, converting exactly half of their 60 field-goal attempts while limiting the Blue Devils to 30 percent shooting in the second half (9-of-30) and 20 percent (2-of-10) in overtime.
Particularly gratifying was turning the tide on the defensive end of the floor where the Irish held the Blue Devils scoreless for seven-and-a-half minutes during the crucial 14-0 run.
“What we’re going to talk about is the defense we played,” said Irish sophomore Steve Vasturia. “It’s something we’ve been harping on all year and we finally did it the second half.
“Zach was a beast on the glass, and once we started hitting some big shots – V.J. hit some big shots and Bonzie (Colson) was a playmaker from the high post -- we never lost confidence.”
Winners of five of six over Duke and three in a row over North Carolina – Friday’s opponent – this has become habit forming.
“They like being doubted and cornered a little bit,” Brey smiled.
“Treated like the stepchild, deliver like the golden child.”