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Men’s Basketball

Notre Dame storms by North Carolina to win ACC Championship Game

| Tuesday, March 17, 2015

TrophyBrian Hartnett | The Observer

GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA — With 9:58 remaining in the championship game of the ACC tournament at Greensboro Coliseum on Saturday night, No. 11 Notre Dame, the tournament’s No. 3 seed, found itself in a situation it had seen time and time again this season. The team trailed by nine midway through the second half, this time to No. 19 North Carolina, the No. 5 seed in the tournament.

But nearly 10 minutes of game action later, the Irish (29-5) found themselves with a familiar result seen time and time again this season: a victory.

Only this time it was an unprecedented one.

Behind a 26-3 run filled with 3-pointers and defensive stops, Notre Dame pulled away to earn a 90-82 victory over the Tar Heels (24-11) and its first ever conference tournament championship, coming in just its second year in the ACC.

“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 be down nine and come out of that timeout and get maybe seven, eight, nine stops in a row, when it looked like we couldn’t guard them. Then put that together with beautiful basketball, which we’ve played all year in ball movement, it was a lighting strike to watch it.”

North Carolina tied its largest lead of the game on a 3-pointer from junior guard Marcus Paige with 9:58 left in the game. The Tar Heels would not make another field goal until the six-minute mark and then were held scoreless until 2:45 remained in the game. During that seven minute-plus stretch, Notre Dame made four 3-pointers, stole the ball from North Carolina five times and went from trailing by nine points to leading by 12 points.

It wasn’t the first time Notre Dame had made such a comeback — the Irish had reversed double-digit deficits five times in the month of January alone — and as such, they were prepared for the same situation on the tournament championship stage, according to sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson.

“We’ve been down before, especially at North Carolina State in a hostile environment, so we’ve been in situations like this, and we just stayed composed,” he said. “We amped it up a little bit, and we just played hard.”

Irish senior guard Jerian Grant said he knew the momentum of the game had shifted when classmate Pat Connaughton hit a 3-pointer to put the Irish ahead 67-64, their first lead since the 17:41 mark of the second half.

“I think when Pat started knocking down shots, and I looked at the scoreboard, and I saw the other team’s heads down, it really felt like we were going to get this win,” Grant said.

Grant led the Irish with 24 points, 15 of them coming from the free-throw line, and Connaughton added 20 of his own. All of Notre Dame’s starters finished the game in double figures in scoring, and junior forward Zach Auguste added a double-double, notching 16 points and 13 rebounds.

“It’s something that is a really unselfish team that we have,” Connaughton said. “All 13 guys in there have one goal, and that is to win. We don’t care who does the shooting, who does the scoring, who does anything on the offensive end.”

Notre Dame’s balanced approach resulted in an overall shooting percentage of 54.2 percent from the field and a 50 percent success rate from beyond the arc, where it made 10 of its 20 attempts. The Irish made 28 of 32 free-throw attempts, shooting 87.5 percent from the charity stripe.

Despite its success on the offensive end, Notre Dame found itself on several occasions trailing a North Carolina team that shot 53 percent from the field for the game. The Irish were down six points at the 12:09 mark of the first half, after which they went on a 15-2 run to take a lead they carried into halftime.

Early in the second half, the Irish found themselves on the receiving end of a 14-2 North Carolina run, which shoved them into the nine-point deficit from which they needed to claw their way back. According to Connaughton, the key to the comeback was a focused on renewed defensive intensity.

“I think coach [Brey] has done a great job of instilling that in us, how are we going to respond?” Connaughton said. “We knew that we needed to do it on the defensive end. That defense fuels our offense.”

In defeating North Carolina and No. 2 Duke the day before, Notre Dame became just the third team in ACC history to defeat both the Tar Heels and Blue Devils in North Carolina en route to winning the conference title and the first to do so since Georgia Tech did it in 1993.

The Irish defeated the Blue Devils, 74-64, on Friday in a matchup in which they led by as much as 17 points in the early second half. Notre Dame defeated Miami, 70-63, on Thursday in the tournament’s quarterfinal round.

“Duke and North Carolina are two premier programs, not only [in the] ACC but in the country,” Irish sophomore guard Steve Vasturia said. “… But we came in with a lot of confidence in this tournament beating both of those teams during the regular season. With the leaders we have and the way we’ve been playing all year, we came in here with a certain confidence, and we’ve played with an edge just like the coaches have been talking about.”

Grant was selected the MVP of the ACC Tournament for his efforts over a three-game stretch in which he averaged 16.7 points and 6.33 assists per game. Vasturia, who averaged 13 points per game, and Connaughton, who averaged 14.3 points per game, joined him on the All-ACC tournament first team, while Jackson, who shot 55.6 percent from the field for the tournament, made the tournament’s second team.

Grant, who didn’t participate in last season’s conference tournament due to an academics-related separation from the program, said he was honored to join a list of tournament MVPs that includes Tim Duncan and Christian Laettner.

“It means a lot; this is what I envisioned coming back,” he said. “This is something that’s really special. To do it with these guys and to do it with coaches, it means a lot.”

Notre Dame will find out its NCAA Tournament fate tonight, when the brackets are revealed at 6 p.m. Until then, Saturday night’s victory will serve as a motivator for success during the rest of March, Connaughton said.

“It’s something that puts us in position to do more things that we’ve never done,” he said. “We were able to do that in the regular season, and we were able to do that in this tournament. Now, we’re even hungrier.

“It was something that no one even picked us when we got to the championship game, so we’re going to use that as motivation not just for this game, but for the games to come.”

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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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