Back from the brink: Irish overcome 15-point deficit, upset No. 2 North Carolina
Alex Carson | Monday, February 8, 2016
For 17 minutes and 22 seconds Saturday night at Purcell Pavilion, it simply looked like Notre Dame wasn’t ready for the bright lights of primetime basketball. No. 2 North Carolina had raced out to a 37-22 win in those opening minutes, pounding the ball inside to their quartet of big men without much response from the home squad.
The final 22 minutes and 38 seconds, however, were a completely different story as the Irish (16-7, 7-4 ACC) rallied, pulled close and then hung on for an 80-76, upset win over the Tar Heels (19-4, 8-2).
“In my time here, we’ve been through it all,” Irish junior guard Demetrius Jackson said. “Down nine, down 18, down 20, so it’s never too high and never give up, just always keep fighting.”
Notre Dame made the immense task ahead of it significantly easier with a strong close to the first half, where 6-for-6 shooting at the free-throw line led the Irish to an 8-2 run, closing North Carolina’s lead to 39-30 at the interval.
“We were lucky to be down nine, quite frankly, as bad as we were and as good as Carolina was,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said. “So you’re feeling like, ‘Okay. Nine ain’t bad. I think we’re gonna find a rhythm, an offensive rhythm,’ and we did in the second half.”
Without senior forward Zach Auguste, who scored 13 of Notre Dame’s first 22 points and had seven rebounds in the first 20 minutes, Notre Dame would have been even further behind when it mounted the comeback.
“I wanted to be that leader,” Auguste said of his first-half performance. “I wanted to lead by example. I wanted to show them that you know, even though for some guys, shots aren’t falling, that we could still have that energy, that I could bring that energy for us and kind of pick us up.”
Having trimmed the gap to nine points, Brey praised the leadership of his three active captains — Jackson, Auguste and junior guard Steve Vasturia — in the locker room at halftime.
“Halftime was fabulous. They were talking; they were poised,” Brey said.
But when the Irish came out in the second half, they still needed to find a couple shots to spark the rally. In a rare occurrence, Notre Dame went the whole first half without hitting a 3-pointer — but when Vasturia got the Irish off the schneid nearly six minutes into the second half, it got the comeback rolling.
Jackson scored on a tip-in the next time down to cut North Carolina’s lead to 47-44, energizing the Purcell Pavilion crowd and forcing Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams into a timeout.
“When you’re playing in front of a great crowd like that, it makes you believe a little bit more,” Brey said. “Our crowd was fabulous. That was one of the great nights in our building, and you just never were tired, and you believed because you had the crowd behind you.”
Vasturia had a layup on Notre Dame’s next possession before junior guard V.J. Beachem tied the game at 48 with two free throws, and the Tar Heels never led by more than one score the rest of the way.
Notre Dame took its first lead of the second half at 57-55 when Jackson scored his 1,000th career point in transition, but Tar Heels senior guard Marcus Paige, who broke his shooting slump with a 5-of-8 performance from behind the arc, put his team back up 60-57 just over a minute later.
The teams traded the lead once more before a layup by sophomore forward Bonzie Colson, who also notched a double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds, put Notre Dame ahead for good at 65-64 with 6:34 to play.
From there, a combination of offensive rebounding — Notre Dame had 20 — solid free-throw shooting — the Irish hit 31 times from the stripe — and turnover-free basketball — Brey’s team committed just two — saw the Irish home.
Notre Dame had its largest lead at 75-70 when Auguste laid in a wide-open layup with 2:15 to play. Paige had a chance in the closing seconds to tie the game, but he missed his shot, Vasturia grabbed a rebound, and the Irish held on.
At the end of the day, the spot was far from being too big for the Irish.
“One thing I’m really proud of, our program, when we’ve been under the bright lights and the big stage, we have flat out delivered,” Brey said. “Flat out delivered. GameDay again here, and I’m really proud of our program, and I’m so proud of this group. They’ve played in some big ones, and they find a way to really deliver. Couldn’t be happier for them.”
While it was far form a perfect performance — the Irish shot just 34.8 percent from the field and 3-of-16 from 3-point range — Jackson said that’s not required to get wins.
“Just the will to win, just finding the way,” Jackson said. “We know it doesn’t have to be a perfect game to win it, and like I said before, we were just mentally tough, we made game-winning plays.”
Brey trusted Rex Pflueger, whose four free throws provided the only bench points the Irish got, down the stretch, putting the freshman guard in the firing line late in a crucial game.
“It really makes me feel good to see that [Brey] trusts me in situations like that because I feel like our relationship’s just going to keep growing throughout my tenure here,” Pflueger said. “It’s so awesome to see him trust me and getting that experience of playing against North Carolina with four minutes to go, I knew I just had to dig down deep and play hard.”
Notre Dame has a quick turnaround, jetting off to Greenville, South Carolina, for a Monday night matchup at Clemson — and Brey said he likes where his team sits right now.
“To get to seven league wins is big,” Brey said. “When you look at our résumé and you’ve got Iowa at a neutral court, you’ve got Duke in [Cameron Indoor Stadium], which I think will continue to be a good win and you’ve got these guys … your résumé is pretty strong.”
Brey said he wants to see his team build on Saturday’s result on Monday and avoid a letdown against the Tigers (14-9, 7-4).
“You’d hope to be able to ride some momentum off of it,” Brey said. “We’re gonna have to be ready; they’re really good, and they’re physical.
“ … We’ve put ourselves in a good position after tonight. Let’s not waste it.”