Irish rally for first conference tournament championship, receive 3 seed for NCAA tournament
Confetti and streamers fell to the floor as Jerian Grant ran over to the Notre Dame bench and furiously hugged Head Coach Mike Brey.
Among the sea of Carolina blue, scattered fans wearing green, navy blue, and gold whooped and hollered around the court of battle.
The Fighting Irish had slayed the dragons of Tobacco Road.
In its first conference tournament championship ever, Notre Dame (29-5, 14-4) rallied from behind against the North Carolina Tar Heels (24-11, 11-7) for a thrilling 90-82 victory on March 14. Just the previous night in the semifinals, the Irish took down the Duke Blue Devils (29-4, 15-3) in convincing fashion 74-64.
“I felt great about tonight. I felt good about last night. And for us to do it, through Duke and Carolina, on Tobacco Road, it’s just amazing,” Brey said as his players put on their championship gear. “I am a little bit in awe of what my team did tonight,” Brey went on, “and really the whole weekend here.”
This night was especially inspiring for Grant. Just a year earlier, he was off the court due to an undisclosed academic violation.
”Just to know where I was last year, sitting in the stands watching, and now I’ve got this shirt, this hat and this trophy, it means a lot,” Grant explained.
Grant finished off the night with 24 points and 10 assists. He garnered tournament MVP honors to add to his impressive awards résumé.
At the start of the second half, Notre Dame held a 39-34 lead. The Irish soon relinquished that lead to the Tar Heels, as Marcus Paige found his shooting touch. North Carolina held a 63-54 advantage at the 9:59 mark.
It would not last, as the Fighting Irish would put together one of its most memorable scoring runs in program history.
For the next 6 minutes and 29 seconds, the Irish clubbed the Tar Heels with a 22-3 run, pushing its lead as far as 80-66. Compiled by textbook passing and the help of 7 Carolina turnovers, Notre Dame never looked back as it went on to put up 51 second half points.
“We have a nine-point lead, and all of a sudden, they started making a bunch of threes, and we called timeout after they had gone ahead by three, and we turn it over three straight times after that timeout,” said UNC Head Coach Roy Williams.
“You just have to congratulate them. That is the bottom line. It wasn’t anything about being tired from playing four days. That was not a factor in the game. That would just be an excuse.
“They played better than we did. We panicked a little bit more than we have at any time this year, and their defense got stronger with every basket and our movement got worse,” Williams said.
Williams hit the nail on the head. Notre Dame fans had not seen an offensive performance like this for a number of years. Not a single Irish starter scored less than 11 points. The Tar Heels had no answer for the Irish attack.
Against Duke, the Irish only attempted 8 three pointers during the entire game. Grant and company instead gave the Blue Devils a taste of its own medicine, scoring 30 points in the paint in the first 20 minutes.
This is the fifth straight year a team from outside North Carolina won the ACC Tournament Championship, the longest such run in conference history. There certainly seems to be a shift in powers, and Notre Dame figures to be a large part of it.
Perhaps Mike Brey can put his postseason jitters behind him. Before this season, the Irish made it to the Big East semifinals 6 times. Now, Brey has the most prized conference tournament trophy in the country.
Pat Connaughton collected 20 points against the Tar Heels, shooting an astounding 7 of 9 from the field and four of five from beyond the arc. Zach Auguste had arguably his most complete game of the season that included 16 points, 11 rebounds, and 8 of 9 shooting from the charity stripe
Bryce Johnson shot 10 of 12 from the field for 20 points. Paige added 24 points and five assists. Johnson and Paige were the only Tar Heel players to put up double digit points.
Selection Sunday came and went, leaving the Fighting Irish with a 3 seed in the Midwestern region of the national bracket.
On an interesting note, the Irish were rated as the lowest 3 seed in the country, meaning if they lost the ACC title game, they would have most likely been given a 4 seed. Duke is the only team in the country without a conference regular season or tournament championship to be rated a 1 seed.
Notre Dame will take on the 13 seed Northeastern Huskies on Thursday in Pittsburgh. The Huskies are coming off a CAA championship and are making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1991.
The Irish and Huskies last met in 1997, with Notre Dame emerging victorious.
Jonathan Mehall is a senior at Holy Cross College majoring in communication with a minor in sports management. Contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org.