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Men’s Basketball

Monaco: Notre Dame finalizes its ACC arrival

| Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A stadium shrouded in baby blue with five mustard streaks on the court soon gave way to a rainbow of confetti.

On Saturday night in Greensboro, North Carolina, fittingly in the heart of ACC country, Notre Dame stood out.

Wearing those gold uniforms and fluorescent highlighter shoes, the Irish outdid the bluebloods of arguably college basketball’s best conference. Wins against Duke and North Carolina in back-to-back nights? Sure.

North Carolina was playing in its 33rd ACC tournament title game. Duke has appeared in 31. Notre Dame was playing in its first — in any conference.

But the team from northwest Indiana, some 665 miles away from Greensboro, bested Duke and pummeled the local Tar Heels with a 22-2 run en route to the 90-82 victory and the conference crown.

“I am a little bit in awe of what my team did tonight and really the whole weekend here,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said to reporters afterward.

Yes, there’s still enough to be decided about this Notre Dame season in a short period of time next week in the NCAA tournament. An NCAA run has been missing in recent years, and another early exit would somewhat smudge the gleam of 29 wins and the ACC tournament title. But that’s a conversation for another day. For one weekend, Notre Dame finalized its arrival in the ACC.

Brey has talked for two seasons, now, about Notre Dame carving out its spot in the ACC. Like the new kid arriving at a new school, there were growing pains. The Irish were bullied and bludgeoned last season and stumbled to their first losing season since 1988-1989.

But Notre Dame started to earn respect with its playground performance. Becoming a mainstay in the national rankings did that initially, but it took marquee wins over the blue-chip opponents to officially announce an arrival.

Notre Dame rolled into Chapel Hill and topped the Tar Heels, 71-70, in early January. But it was a one-point win.

Notre Dame outlasted Duke at home at the end of January, dropping the Devils by four. But that had to be a fluke. Duke steamrolled the Irish by 30 just 10 days later.

Nope.

The Irish toppled Duke — again — in the ACC semifinals Friday.

North Carolina ripped open a nine-point lead midway through the second half Saturday. That would surely do in the Irish, who had no answers inside — right?

Wrong.

Notre Dame answered with its massive run and placed an exclamation point on a season that began with questions about finishing .500 in conference play.

“To win the championship going through Duke and North Carolina on Tobacco Road, I think, is extremely powerful,” Brey said.

And Notre Dame pushed the powers aside in boxing out its spot among the conference’s best.

Brey hasn’t backed down from saying this championship is the best achievement in the history of Notre Dame basketball. While that’s certainly debatable, especially in Digger Phelps’ mind, it’s worth wondering what it means moving forward.

A great accomplishment, surely.

“When we come back, or they come back for reunions, that is something they’ll always remember,” Brey said.

The wins over Duke and North Carolina might reveal something more about the Irish heading toward NCAA play, though. Backed by an improved defense, Notre Dame may have raised the floor of its seemingly widespread range of possible outcomes next week.

Standing on a three-step platform, cutting down the nets as ACC champions in the Greensboro Coliseum, it sure seems so.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Mike Monaco

Senior Sports Writer Mike Monaco is a senior majoring in Film, Television and Theatre with a minor in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy as well as Business Economics. The O’Neill Hall native hails from the Boston area and is an aspiring play-by-play broadcaster.

Contact Mike