March 11, 2016
Presumably Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford slept a bit better Friday night.
Some reasonable amount of order finally returned to his league in the ACC Men’s Basketball Championship at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., where top seed and seventh-rated North Carolina eliminated that pesky Notre Dame unit 78-47 in the tourney semifinals (in a rematch of the 2015 ACC title game). On this night the Tar Heels looked every bit the part of their ranking.
Swofford certainly envisioned the Irish would add something to the ACC mix when he and the Notre Dame administration agreed a few years back that the Irish would join the conference in most sports and also play a schedule of football games against league teams.
Yet he probably never figured the Irish would make themselves right at home so quickly-particularly based on their success against the league’s premier men’s basketball programs at Duke and North Carolina.
Notre Dame won the ACC Championship crown a year ago (as the #3 seed) in just its second season in the league-and darned if those Irish didn’t come back a year later to claim a double-bye again (this time as the #4 seed).
Win five straight games against the Blue Devils and Tar Heels? Notre Dame coach Mike Brey certainly came in no stranger to the ACC based on his Duke years, but were his Irish really supposed to be doing things no one in the league had done in two decades? (No ACC team had beaten Duke and Carolina five times in a row since Wake Forest and Tim Duncan did it in 1994-95 and 1995-96, with the wins over the Heels when Carolina rated second and fourth.)
Already this week Notre Dame became only the second team in history and first in six decades to dispatch Duke in consecutive ACC Championships (North Carolina State also did it in 1954-56).
Brey’s group against Carolina attempted to become only the fourth team to eliminate the Heels in two straight ACC events (also accomplished by Wake Forest in 1955-56, Duke in 2001-03 and Georgia Tech in 2004-05).
That means Notre Dame attempted to become the first team in ACC Championship history to defeat both Duke and Carolina in consecutive years-and the Irish already had the first three of those four required wins in their hip pockets and gave the fourth a go Friday on a balmy evening in the nation’s capital.
The Irish came in with a three-game win streak against the Tar Heels-yet in the entire 26-game series Notre Dame only boasts four other successes against Carolina.
On Thursday night Notre Dame limited Duke standouts Grayson Allen, Brandon Ingram and Luke Kennard to combined 14-of-51 field-goal shooting. One night later the stat sheet against North Carolina told a different story.
Irish fans will have a hard time remembering Notre Dame trailed only 23-22 Friday night with 6:12 left in the opening half after a Bonzie Colson second-effort hoop. It truly all went south after that.
The Tar Heels went on an 18-0 run over a 5:52 span (two Marcus Paige threes punctuated the spree and Joel Berry II ended it with a rainbow with two ticks left).
The Irish missed their last four shots and hit but one of their last six and two of their final eight (while committing five turnovers over a 6:12 window).
Carolina led 41-22 at the break (matching Notre Dame’s season-low first-half point total against Miami last week) and had twice as many field goals as Notre Dame (18-9).
The Tar Heel run extended to 24 points in a row before two Colson free throws three minutes and 22 seconds into the second period (at that point the Irish were shooting .296 from the floor)-and it never really got much better than that for Notre Dame. Colson ended up leading the Irish with 15 points,
Six of Notre Dame’s previous 10 defeats came by single digits, yet Brey knows his Irish have some work to do after his team’s final three losses came by an average of 23.3 points.
Notre Dame unquestionably will see its name pop up in the NCAA bracket Sunday night-and the Irish will take it from there. Brey will ensure any remnants from Friday night’s loss are flushed quickly, and he and his staff will analyze what led to tough stretches late in the first half of both games at Verizon Center. (The Irish Friday went 11:21 without a field goal between late in the opening period and the start of the second.)
“Give them a lot of credit,” Brey told his team. “They played great. They were playing at a really high level.
“Overall I’m very proud of what we’ve done to date.”
Eighteen turnovers against Duke, 17 versus Carolina-“That’s not us,” said Brey.
Adding to the Irish resume against Carolina and Duke simply wasn’t going to happen on a night Notre Dame finished shooting a season-low 30 percent, found itself down 49-31 in the rebounding column and committed seven more miscues than the norm.
Two seasons worth of ACC Championship magic ran dry. This one ended a bit reminiscent of a 30-point loss at Duke in February 2015.
Even after Friday night the Irish have won 11 of their last 13 ACC games against league members from the state of North Carolina.
Short of an NCAA rematch, Brey and Company won’t see the Heels or Blue Devils again until 2016-17. Then they’ll have their chances against the best the ACC has to offer-and maybe even cause Swofford a few more sleepless nights in the process.
Meanwhile Notre Dame’s second season awaits.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.