March 12, 2017
By John Heisler
Notre Dame didn’t win the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament Saturday night at the Barclays Center.
Duke earned that honor with a 75-69 triumph on its fourth win in four days-and no other team had done that in the conference tournament.
But don’t feel badly for Mike Brey, Bonzie Colson and the Irish.
As much as they wanted to hang a second banner in three years in this event, they hardly hurt their resume in three nights of play in Brooklyn.
And Colson? With games of 21 points against Virginia, 18 against second-seeded Florida State and then 29 versus Duke, he looked every bit the part of an ACC MVP.
The Irish contingent flew home early Sunday morning, and Brey’s group will have no reason not to be excited about how it’s playing heading into next week’s NCAA Championships.
The bracketology experts suggest Notre Dame will end up in the neighborhood of a number-four seed when the NCAA brackets are announced Sunday night-and it’s safe to say no one will look forward to playing the Irish.
The end result in Brooklyn? Over the last two nights the top three seeds all went down to defeat-top seed North Carolina and second seed Florida State in the semifinals Friday and then third seed Notre Dame Saturday in the finale.
Give the Blue Devils credit. The threw some early haymakers at the Irish and led by nine points with about eight minutes to go in the opening half. Then Duke withstood a sloppy period early in the second half, with Notre Dame fighting back to claim an eight-point advantage of its own with a dozen minutes remaining.
As competitively as Notre Dame played, give the Duke defense a ribbon for limiting Steve Vasturia, V.J. Beachem and Matt Farrell to a combined three-point shooting number of three for 17. That might well have been the difference in the game.
The pregame chatter surrounded Brey’s 8-2 record in ACC Tournament play and Notre Dame’s seven consecutive wins at the Barclays Center. But that did not faze Duke, which had not won this event since 2011.
The Blue Devils led from the jump-hitting three field goals in a row (and five of seven) to build a 27-18 advantage. Brey’s roster suffered through a two-for-11 shooting stretch, yet the Irish did well in the final minute to make it a 38-34 Duke lead at the break.
Considering Mike Krzyzewski’s squad shot 55.6 percent in the first 20 minutes compared to 39.4 for the Irish, it wasn’t hard to discern that Notre Dame needed to play a bit more defense and play a bit more efficiently offensively.
And all that happened for Notre Dame.
Rex Pflueger’s three-pointer 2:48 into the second period handed Notre Dame its first lead. The Irish benefited from 15 minutes without a turnover, eventually pushing out to a 56-48 edge when Duke committed five miscues in 4:02 and Notre Dame knocked down five of seven shots. The Irish ended with 20 points off a dozen Duke turnovers while committing only six mistakes themselves.
Colson was simply magnificent. In the first half he accounted for 15 points on six of-13 shooting. In the second half he added 14 on six-of-eight shooting. And he survived an ankle injury and contact lens problems.
“It’s one of the great performances in championship game history,” said Brey. “Now, our fans don’t know about the history of the ACC Championship game. We’ve only been in the league four years. But what he did willing us and keeping us in it and making big plays and chasing down loose balls, it’s a great performance. And he’s so confident. He’s a tough matchup now that he can step up and make jump shots.”
Beachem, Farrell and Vasturia combined for 33 points, but they made only 13 of 35 shots.
Offered Vasturia: “I think we got great looks, and we usually step up and knock them down. That’s all you can ask for. Matt did a great job of getting guys open and finding them. I think we’ll take those shots every day. It’s up to us to knock them down.”
Duke fought back to lead, yet Colson’s three tied it at 65 with 2:27 to go.
If there was a key basket it was a three by Duke freshman Matt Jones with 49 seconds to go on his only points of the evening. That made it 71-67 for the Blue Devils.
Whatever fatigue was involved, Duke connected on its last four shots and eight of its final nine.
The Blue Devils hit 16 of 24 shots after the break and finished with a .608 field-goal percentage.
“I’m really proud of our group,” said Brey.
“You’ve got to give Duke credit. They made some big shots and big plays. When we were up six, we had some really clean looks from three. We needed a couple of those to go down to escape and couldn’t do it.
“We’re pretty efficient. We know who we are.
“But we need to make a few more of those open looks to beat a team like that (Duke). And to beat Florida State last night, we had to make more of them than we did.
“We couldn’t tonight.”
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been covering the Notre Dame athletics scene since 1978. Watch for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings on UND.com.