March 14, 2015
The University of Notre Dame men's basketball team will play for the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship Saturday night in Greensboro, North Carolina.
But, that's a story for another day.
For a Friday night in Greensboro, there already have been enough sights not seen before. That's what beating Duke (the second-ranked team in the nation and an expected number-one NCAA seed), and downing the Blue Devils for the second time this season, will provide. Duke had won 12 straight games in between those losses to Notre Dame.
It's already late in the evening, the Irish have rolled to a 18-5 lead in the first eight and a half minutes, and the leftover fans from Virginia and North Carolina - already drained from the Tar Heels' tight win over the regular-season ACC champion--don't seem to have any idea how to react.
The Irish build their advantage to 16 (at 33-17) five minutes before the halftime break and still maintain a 15-point edge at intermission. This is against a Duke team that had never trailed by more than four points at half all season.
A 15-point halftime lead? Only a Maryland team in 2004 that overcame a 19-point halftime deficit to beat North Carolina State managed to wipe out a larger halftime margin in the ACC Tournament.
The Blue Devils made it close, of course, because that's what they do. They battled back to trail by only four with 3:13 remaining before Pat Connaughton nailed a huge jump shot at the 1:13 mark and Irish free throws finished it out.
Freshman Bonzie Colson (17 points off the bench against Duke, 14 in the first half), who was nothing close to a factor back in November and December, has become one of the most effective, fearless players on the roster. His recent field-goal shooting percentage (.739 on 34-of-46 marksmanship over his last nine games) has boggled the mind.
That meant both ACC teams still presumed to be number-one NCAA seeds on Sunday evening--Duke and Virginia--lost on the same night in the same building. Who would have thunk it?
It's 18 minutes after midnight and Mike Brey is receiving hugs in a back hallway of the Greensboro Coliseum from both Mike and Micki Krzyzewski.
At 12:25 a.m. the showers in the Notre Dame locker room are steaming and the music is cranking and the idea that there's another important basketball game in another 20 hours is nowhere near anyone's frame of reference.
It's 1 a.m. back at the Irish team hotel and the leprechaun is still posing for pictures in the lobby.
Rare air, indeed.
Let's be clear--Notre Dame has never played for a league title like this. The Irish don't have anywhere near the conference whiskers that most of the rest of the teams in the ACC possess. The University joined the BIG EAST Conference beginning with the 1995-96 athletic season, and success came hard in the BIG EAST Tournament. The Irish advanced to the semifinals in Madison Square Garden on six occasions (2002, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013).
So Saturday night the Irish play for a trophy against one of the league bluebloods (no pun intended) in North Carolina, and that's not lost on Brey.
"We defended an even better offensive team than we did last night," he told his team after the win over Duke. "We've dreamed about getting to play on Saturday night, to play for a banner."
They did it by artfully carving up everything the Blue Devils threw at them in the opening 20 minutes. Duke's man-to-man defense, normally a staple and often a shutdown ploy, simply was not effective and by late in the opening half the Devils had switched to a zone.
Maybe Irish fans should have sensed something good was up when Krzyzewski called a timeout 1:41 into the game with the Irish leading 4-2. He may already have sensed how dialed in the Irish were.
Early on Saturday morning, Brey stood in the Coliseum hallway offering some final observations to the media.
He couldn't help but recall the scene in the same Greensboro hotel almost exactly a year ago. After the Irish lost their opening game to Wake Forest, Brey conducted a late-night meeting in the hotel with his team, and it was hardly a pretty sight. Oh, how far the Irish have come in that year's time. The Irish have become so diverse that Connaughton and Jerian Grant, the veterans of the current group, needed to contribute only 22 of 74 points for the Irish to defeat Duke Friday night.
The Irish already have set a modern record for wins in a season with 28. There's an ACC title game to play and an NCAA bracket to view in less than 48 hours.
Brey, at times haltingly, has used the word "special" to describe this team and this season, and he's finding fewer and fewer to debate him as the nights go by.
That guarantees nothing in Saturday night's ACC title tilt and the NCAAs to come.
Brey can only hope the nights and days and early mornings ahead bring the special sort of memories that transpired on an awfully entertaining Friday night in Greensboro.
Rare air, indeed.
-- by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director