Feb. 7, 2016
By John Heisler
This one had all the makings of another University of Notre Dame athletic moment:
— The North Carolina basketball team had come to town with the number-one ranking in tow.
— The Irish were back in their gold uniforms.
— Every Purcell Pavilion seat was draped with a metallic gold pompon.
— Every student seat was draped with a bright gold basketball jersey, with green script “Irish” on the front and the number six.
— The ESPN GameDay crew was in town-with a few of its alumni on hand in former Irish coach Digger Phelps (seated on press row) and Hubert Davis (now a Tar Heel assistant coach).
— Former Irish great LaPhonso Ellis worked in the ESPN studio Saturday-and multiple times enjoyed watching a graphic pop up that showed he scored 31 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in a 1992 Irish win at Madison Square Garden over the seventh-rated Tar Heels.
— The Irish pom squad members broke out their metallic gold lame outfits.
— The media flip card was printed on an unusual gold stock (could it really contain flecks of gold from the Golden Dome?).
— Notre Dame did its best to match the Tar Heel ranking by showcasing the top-rated Irish men’s lacrosse team at the first timeout, with players wielding their lacrosse sticks and firing shirts and season tickets into the crowd while music from “Rudy” played.
— Halftime featured the San Francisco acrobat, the Red Panda, doing her unicycle, plate-flipping routine to perfection. Now, that’s called pulling out all the stops.
— And, after all, Purcell Pavilion, the Joyce Center and the Athletic and Convocation Center have combined for a long history of playing host to top-rated teams and sending them home on the short end of the scoreboard.
The pregame atmosphere was predictably amped. The Irish team chaplain, Father Pete McCormick, donned a backwards green baseball hat with his priestly garb, and played DJ while spinning tunes from Eminem, Journey (“Don’t Stop Believin'”) and House of Pain (“Jump Around”) with Carolina coach Roy Williams sitting calmly just feet away.
Former Irish basketball great Pat Garrity sat on one baseline with his son. Former Irish football great Ron Powlus sat across from the Irish bench with his son.
When Rudy Reyes Jr. sang the national anthem, most of the students and many other spectators audibly sang along.
It was 34 degrees outside, but it was flat-out warm inside the packed Purcell Pavilion.
There was only one big problem.
North Carolina looked every bit the part of party-pooper early on, dominating inside and building a lead as large as 15 points in the first half.
Other than Zach Auguste, who played like a man possessed (13 points, seven rebounds in the first half alone), most of the rest of the Irish were abysmal, especially on offense.
The Tar Heels seemed to get whatever they wanted around the rim, and Notre Dame couldn’t buy a bucket, much less an uncontested shot. The Irish finished zero for five in the first half from beyond the arc, and when’s the last time that happened? (The Irish are third in the Atlantic Coast Conference in three-pointers made per game.)
There were about five big problems, all of them wearing Carolina blue: 6-10, 230-pound Brice Johnson, 6-10, 260-pound Kennedy Meeks, 6-9, 235-pound Isaiah Hicks (he had 10 first-half points in seven minutes of playing time and he averages just 9.8 per game), 6-8, 200-pound Justin Jackson and 6-8, 230-pound Luke Maye. As a group they might rival the Super Bowl-qualifying Carolina Panther defensive line, at least in appearance.
Those guys did whatever they wanted in the lane for a while, and everybody wearing blue looked like a demon on defense. The Irish couldn’t seem to create shots, and those they did seemed to be altered by Carolina. Twelve minutes into the game, the Tar Heels had connected on 11 of their 19 shots while the home team was shooting 25 percent.
Every Irish home game features a timeout where a fan has a chance to match the video of a shot from a real Notre Dame game. The big screen showed a dagger three-pointer by Steve Vasturia last March in the ACC title game against North Carolina (with the Irish and Heels wearing the same-colored uniforms). This time the student threw up an air ball-and that seemed to mirror the home team’s frustration to that point in the game. About that same time, Vasturia, Demetrius Jackson and VJ Beachem were a combined one for 11 in the field-goal department.
Notre Dame called timeout, down 34-22, having hit eight of 29 shots. Beachem never scored in the opening half, and Vasturia was scoreless until a floating bank shot with 1:54 left. The Irish ended none for six on three-pointers in the opening half, while Marcus Paige alone knocked down three threes in a 4:29 span. Paige and Hicks both hit four of their five first-half shot attempts.
Amazingly, all that happened with Notre Dame committing only one first-half turnover-and that was an illegal pick that produced an offensive foul on Bonzie Colson with 3:16 left.
Auguste and Colson combined in the first half to knock down seven of 14 shots-everybody else was a combined two for 18. Ugh.
As Irish coach Mike Brey noted after the game, “In the first half, I don’t know who we were offensively. I’d never seen that team before.”
As the second half progressed, the tide slowly but surely turned:
— Vasturia lost the ball under the basket a minute and a half into the second session, and that turned out it be the only real turnover Notre Dame committed all night (North Carolina had 13). The Irish came into the game rated fourth nationally in (fewest) turnovers, and that standing only figures to improve.
— The Tar Heels began to look a bit more human on the offensive end. Brey admitted that his guys simply had to dig in better defensively.
— Vasturia finally connected on Notre Dame’s first three-pointer at the 14:12 mark (that cut the Carolina lead to five). Jackson followed that up with a tip-in, prompting Williams to call timeout with everybody in the house standing.
— Freshman Rex Pflueger forced a held ball (with possession to the Irish) and two Beachem free throws tied the game at 48 at the 12:23 mark.
— Beachem, after missing his first seven shots, hit a three at the 10:25 point. Tie game again.
— Notre Dame acquired its initial second-half lead on a Jackson layup that made it 57-55 with 9:25 to go. That basket pushed Jackson to the career 1,000-point mark.
— Colson’s layup at the 6:34 mark put the Irish on top 65-64 ( after 10 ties and five lead changes), and Notre Dame never trailed again.
— Auguste hit an easy hoop on a great look from Vasturia to put the Irish up five (at 2:15) and Notre Dame managed enough free throws down the stretch to ice it.
By the time the Irish players finished shaking hands with the Tar Heels, the Purcell Pavilion floor had been mobbed by students.
The students chanted “We are ND.” The band played “Oh, What A Night.” The students sang the Notre Dame alma mater in full voice.
“When the lights are brightest, this group plays fearlessly,” noted Brey.
The Irish finished with an interesting, if not confounding, 34-30 edge in points in the paint, thanks to 15 points and 10 rebounds by Auguste and 19 points and 10 rebounds from Colson. Jackson had 19 points, a dozen after the break.
“They were men. Those guys were warriors,” said Brey.
Notre Dame won despite being outscored by four field goals, by three from the three-point line (the Irish were three of 16 from beyond the arc) and by shooting only 34.8 percent from the floor. But Brey’s crew outscored North Carolina 19-0 off turnovers.
“It’s a heck of a resume win for us,” said Brey.
The Irish win marked Notre Dame’s first over a top-rated team since a January 2012 triumph against Syracuse. Remember the shot of a grinning Eric Atkins on the shoulders of Irish students?
But, let’s be serious. No arena in America has seen the series of victories over top-rated opponents that Purcell Pavilion has. UCLA in 1971. UCLA in 1974. Unbeaten San Francisco in 1977. Marquette in 1978. DePaul in 1980. North Carolina in 1987. And Syracuse. And throw in three road or neutral site victories over number-one teams. And, just as important, over the last two seasons combined, Notre Dame boasts six wins over North Carolina and Duke (one home, one road and one ACC Championship win over each). Phelps probably walked out of the arena nonplussed. After all, that was exactly what was supposed to happen when the number-one team in the country comes to Notre Dame.
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.
Heisler produces a weekly football commentary piece for UND.com titled “Sunday Brunch,” along with a Thursday football preview piece. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series. Here is a selection of other features published recently by Heisler:
— Troy Murphy: His Relentless Yet Fun-Loving Approach Did the Trick
— Sunday Brunch: Irish Officially Hot . . . But Shhh
— Sunday Brunch: Panthers Deliver Solid Impression of Irish
Sunday Brunch: Panthers Deliver Solid Impression of Irish
— DeShone Kizer: North of Confident, South of Cocky
— 2016 Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame-Ohio State Preview
— Joyce Scholars: Connecting the Irish and Buckeyes
— One Final Version: 20 Questions (and answers) on Notre Dame Football
— Top 10 Things Learned About the Irish So Far in 2015:
— Brey’s Crew Receives Rings, Prepared to Raise Banner-and Moves On
— Jim McLaughlin: New Irish Volleyball Boss Is All About the Numbers:
— Men’s Soccer Establishes Itself with Exclamation:
— Australia Rugby Visit Turns into Great Sharing of Sports Performance Practices:
— Bud Schmitt Doesn’t Need a Map to Find Notre Dame Stadium:
— Remembering Bob Kemp: Notre Dame Lacrosse Family Honors Devoted Father
— Community Service a Record-Setting Event for Irish Athletics in 2014-15: