Zach Auguste celebrates after the final buzzer goes off.

IRISH EXTRA: A Special Night for a Special Group

March 15, 2015

It’s absolutely safe to say the events of Saturday night stretched the collective cellphone memory capacity of the University of Notre Dame men’s basketball players in their efforts to record every postgame scene in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the Irish won their first men’s basketball conference title.

It became more than obvious the Irish wanted to let every single solitary highlight thoroughly wash over them. In fact, at 12:05 a.m., with media availability done and the players free to shower, no one moved in the Irish locker room. The Notre Dame players sat on their stools, most still in full uniform, chatting, sharing moments from the previous few hours, staring at their phones and reveling in the moment.

For the Atlantic Coast Conference champions, the showers could wait.

By now, the game events have been well documented. After an impressive first half produced a 39-34 Notre Dame halftime lead (with the margin mostly based on five-for-11 shooting on three-pointers, compared to one for eight for North Carolina), the Tar Heels came roaring back.

Notre Dame missed its first five shots of the second half, and the Irish edge had been zapped in less than three minutes. Carolina twice pushed its advantage to nine, the Tar Heel faithful, who occupied most of the 22,026-seat Greensboro Coliseum, were in full voice–and even the most ardent Notre Dame observers had to wonder just a bit if beating Duke and North Carolina in consecutive night de-facto road games had been too much to expect.

With 9:21 remaining, North Carolina led 64-56. What happened next–over a 24-2 Irish run that extended through a Pat Connaughton dunk for an 80-66 Notre Dame advantage with 2:54 left on the clock–even the Irish players couldn’t explain. They called it a blur. North Carolina had less complimentary terms for it.

This was some serious, high-level basketball. Over one stretch the two teams combined to hit 13 of 15 shots (to the point the Irish held a 67-64 advantage). Throw out those first five misses in the second half, and Notre Dame connected on 14 of 19 field goals the rest of the way. The Irish prevailed despite .576 second-half field-goal shooting by Carolina.

All that proved good enough to earn Jerian Grant the tourney MVP award with his 24 points, 10 assists and 13-of-18 free-throw shooting. Connaughton and Steve Vasturia also made the first all-tourney team and Demetrius Jackson was named to the second unit.

Here’s just a sampling of what transpired both in front of the cameras and behind the scenes (cue the cellphones):

— Tim Brandt’s final-seconds call of the Irish win on the ACC Network went like this: “Tobacco Road now spreads to the Midwest.”

— Not long after he finished his postgame interview with ESPN, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey headed straight to the Irish seating section behind the bench and shared a big-time hug with his wife Tish and son Kyle.

— When the trophy presentation and net-cuttings were finished, the Irish finally repaired to their locker room. Just as Brey was ready to speak to his squad, in walked ACC associate commissioner Brian Morrison with the trophy. Notre Dame had left it behind. “We’re new at this,” Brey said to him with a grin.

— The conversation immediately wound back a year to last March in Greensboro when Connaughton and Grant made a pact to do whatever it took to make 2014-15 into something a whole lot more satisfying than what transpired last winter when the Irish limped to a 6-12 conference record.

— Irish vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick lauded the coaching staff and the support staff–and then noted the significance of the Notre Dame men winning their first conference tournament while wearing the Fr. Ted patches in memory of former University president Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. When Brey led a brief prayer, he said, “Father Ted, thanks for being with us all the way. We still need you.”

— Once it arrived in the locker room, the championship trophy appeared in posed photos with virtually everyone in the traveling party.

— All his interviews finished, Brey returned to the locker room to check on his guys just as the flat-screen television there flashed the list of NCAA automatic qualifiers (including Notre Dame on the bottom line). “We’re in!” noted Brey, just in case there was a question after the week in Greensboro. The ACC Champion hat with the ND logo may not have qualified as a GQ item, but Brey had no intention of taking it off–nor did any of his players.

— At 1:15 a.m. Sunday, Steve Vasturia became the first Irish player to walk onto the Notre Dame charter–and he promptly received an ovation from the Notre Dame band members and cheerleaders already seated in the rear of the plane. That same reception greeted every player who came down the aisle. When the trophy arrived, the band pleaded, “Hold it up! Hold it up! Hold it up!”

— It was about 3:15 a.m. when the Notre Dame charter touched down in South Bend. As it turned out, the plane may not have been necessary. Most in the Irish party could have floated home on the raw emotion of the evening.

While Brey’s previous ACC connections have been duly noted, those of Irish assistants Anthony Solomon and Rod Balanis made Saturday a sweet accomplishment for them as well. Solomon both played and coached at Virginia and saw plenty of ACC Tournament action in those roles. Balanis remembered well his Georgia Tech team’s ACC title in 1993 when the Yellow Jackets knocked off top seed North Carolina by two points in the final game in Charlotte.

Notre Dame in 2015 became only the third team from outside North Carolina to win the trophy by going through both Duke and North Carolina along the way (Maryland in 1958 and Georgia Tech in 1993 also did that).

Excuse the Tar Heels if they are a little blase about these achievements–they’ve got 17 of these trophies in their storehouse. The Irish will take their 24 hours to enjoy this one–all the while knowing the gearing-up process begins all over again once the NCAA brackets are announced Sunday.

Brey remembered when Lefty Driesell’s Maryland team once won this event, and Driesell told everyone who would listen, “I’m going to bolt the trophy to the hood of my car and drive all over Tobacco Road.” Said Brey, “So if you see a Buick Enclave in June with the trophy going from Ashville to Wilmington, it’s me.”

Brey had suggested that winning the ACC title might well qualify, at least for now, as Notre Dame’s crowning achievement in men’s basketball, especially given the opposition and the tournament site.

“Digger Phelps would probably argue with me a little bit, but I can’t wait to have that debate with him when I get back to South Bend.”

That cellphone memory card registering full? Grab another one for next week. The Irish can’t wait.

— by John Heisler, senior associate athletic director