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Notre Dame defeats Duke to reach ACC tournament final

| Saturday, March 14, 2015

No. 11 Notre Dame has long been a staple in the semifinals of conference tournaments, making the round of four in five of the last six seasons.

Conference championship games, however, had eluded the program, which suffered losses in the semifinals of four consecutive Big East tournaments from 2010-2013.

That all changed Friday night, when the Irish (28-5) rode strong defense and efficient paint play to topple No. 2 Duke, 74-64, in the semifinals of the 2015 New York Life ACC tournament at Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Notre Dame will now advance to its first conference championship game in program history, where it will face No. 19 North Carolina tonight.

“It’s a special night really in the history of our program to get to the semifinals of this tournament, to beat that program to get to the championship game,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. “One of the things I used to say all the time when we were in the Big East [was] ‘let’s get to Saturday.’

“We went to four straight semifinals before we left the league for the ACC, but we could never get to Saturday. Darn if we’re not playing for it tomorrow night, and I’ve never been more confident of a group.”

For the second straight night, Notre Dame, the tournament’s No. 3 seed, opened up a sizable first half lead, taking a 41-26 advantage into the break over the No. 2 seed Blue Devils (29-4). The Irish, which never trailed after the 18:20 mark of the first half, shot 53.1 percent from the field in the first frame, while limiting Duke to 40.7 percent shooting. Notre Dame did much of its first half scoring down low, as the Irish racked up 30 points in the paint in the first 20 minutes.

Fourteen of those first half points came from Irish freshman forward Bonzie Colson, who ended the game as the team’s leading scorer with 17 points in 26 minutes.

“I knew [Colson] was going to play well tonight because he didn’t play well last night, and he’s a competitive dude,” Brey said. “He gave us a great lift…he’s been like an X factor for us ever since the Georgia Tech game on the road when we didn’t have [junior forward] Zach Auguste.

Notre Dame jumped out to a 17-point lead early in the second half, but much like the night before, the Irish watched much of their lead whither away over the course of the half. Duke cut Notre Dame’s lead down to four after a 3-pointer by freshman guard Tyus Jones with 3:13 left in the game, but that basket proved to be the Blue Devils’ final points, as Irish senior guard Pat Connaughton sealed the game with a jumper to make with 70-64 with 1:13 remaining.

Brey said Notre Dame’s confidence never faltered, even as Duke was pecking away at its lead

“We’ve weathered stuff like this all season and we’ve found a way to be poised,” he said. “I actually said in one of the timeouts, it’s just like last night. I think I said they’re not going to win. Let them have fun closing the gap, but we’re going to win this thing.”

In addition to Colson’s 17 points, Notre Dame sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson scored 15 points and Irish senior guard Jerian Grant finished with 13 points. On the other end, Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor scored 28 points, but Brey said the Irish were more intent on stopping the Blue Devils from getting open perimeter shots. Duke was 3-for-17 from beyond the 3-point line on the night.

“We just didn’t want them to light us up from the three point line, to make [Okafor] work for everything, and he got 28 tonight, but he worked to get them,” Brey said.

Notre Dame will play a North Carolina team taking the court for the fourth time in as many days. The Tar Heels (24-10) beat top-seeded No. 3 Virginia, 71-67, in the first semifinal game Friday night. Notre Dame won at North Carolina, 71-70, on Jan. 5 in the last meeting between the two teams.

With the Irish now only one win away from a conference title, Brey wasn’t shy about what the potential accomplishment would mean to his team.

“Well, there would be no greater achievement in the history of our program,” he said. “Again, we were an independent for a long time, but this would be as good as anything we’ve done in our history, and it’s something, personally, I’ve kind of been searching for to get to Saturday night and play for a tournament championship.”

Notre Dame and North Carolina will play in the final of the ACC tournament tonight at 8:30 p.m.

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About Brian Hartnett

Brian Hartnett is a senior marketing major and journalism, ethics and democracy minor. The Carroll Hall resident hails from Clark, New Jersey and covers Notre Dame football, as well as other University topics.

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