Inside the Notre Dame locker room Thursday afternoon, the Irish knew what all of them wanted, what all the television executives and Verizon Center ticket scalpers and Tobacco Road old boys hoped for. The Irish knew they wanted them to lose.
They knew they were all thrilled to see them trailing by 16 points early in the second half, salivating over the near-certain prospect of a Duke-North Carolina semifinal in the ACC tournament, the rubber match after two regular season epics between the greatest rivals in college basketball. They wanted the conference order back like it used to be.
And then Notre Dame upended the ACC’s power structure again, this time in more startling fashion than ever before. After they stunned Duke, 84-79, in an overtime classic, it became clear the Irish do not just specialize in insurgency. They relish it.
“Yeah,” Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey said, leaning against a wall outside his locker room. “We like spoiling [stuff] in this league.”
Brey scurried back to his locker room and, as he approached the closed double doors, spotted an acquaintance. “Hey!” he said, grinning wide. “You got a shot of Jameson for me?”
Cheers, Coach. There will be no Duke-UNC trilogy. There will be no ratings bonanza. There will be no blueblood grudge match. The ACC and everybody else will just have to settle for – sigh – the reigning league champions sticking around for the semifinals.
Brey will not soon forget the details of Wednesday. Notre Dame faced a 16-point deficit with less than 15 minutes remaining in regulation. The Irish (21-10) held Duke, perhaps the best offense in the country, scoreless for 7 minutes 31 seconds as the Blue Devils’ thin bench and tired legs caught up with them. Senior forward Zach Auguste scored 19 points, grabbed 22 rebounds and ensnared Duke’s entire front line in foul trouble. A Bethesda native, DeMatha High graduate and George Washington University alum, Brey coached in front of dozens of friends and family.
“This will be one of the great memories,” Brey said.
The outcome, though, will fade into a blur of triumphs. Since Notre Dame joined the ACC three years ago, the Irish have beaten Duke five times in six games, including twice last season, when Duke won the national title. They have also downed semifinal foe Carolina three times in five tries, including last year’s tournament final. But beating the Blue Devils has become their conference calling card.
“I guess you could say we love playing Duke,” Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson said. “Ever since we’ve been in the conference, we love to attack each other. You know, they’re Duke. They’re one of the best programs in the country. They carry this persona. We just love playing them.”
Notre Dame’s comfort facing Duke starts with Brey, an assistant under Mike Krzyzewski from 1987 through 1995. Most teams confront Duke with some level of awe, but Notre Dame inherently feels no trepidation.
“I’m not going to be intimidated by the aura, because I was part of it,” Brey said. “You can remind them that they put their shorts on like us. I’ve been able to help with the preparation with that. But once you beat them once or twice, you feel like you can.”
The Irish have also been steeled by their program’s ascension. Last year, Notre Dame won the ACC tournament, advanced to the Elite Eight and nearly toppled then-unbeaten Kentucky. They lost stars Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant to the NBA and have stumbled at times trying to replace them. But Notre Dame also beat Carolina, Duke, Louisville and Iowa during the regular season.
“We play our game,” said freshman guard Matt Ryan, who drilled three three-pointers in 16 minutes. “We play the players for who they are, not the name on their chest. That’s No. 1 thing when you play a program like Duke and all their history, great players, great coach. You can get caught up in it. But we think we’re better. And that’s what we’ve shown the past couple years.”
“It’s not necessarily having their number,” junior guard Demetrius Jackson said. “We got guys who want to win another ACC championship. We got guys who have been there.”
After the past three years, beating Duke has turned from a goal for Notre Dame into an expectation. There was no apparent wild celebration inside Notre Dame’s locker room, even after the massive comeback. One player faux-interviewed a team manager, a marker subbing for a microphone. The manager revealed that his towel-folding made the difference.
“This nucleus of guys, they think we should beat them all the time,” Brey said. “We’ve created this crazy monster. Early in our tenure in this league, that we’ve had success against Duke and North Carolina has given us great credibility in the league, and confidence.”
Duke’s fatigue, Brey admitted, played a significant factor Thursday. The Blue Devils (23-10) have played with a seven-man rotation for months, and four starters had played at least 34 minutes Wednesday. Duke betrayed its lack of depth by coming out in a 2-3 zone, not Krzyzewski’s trademark fierce man-to-man.
“They just don’t have the depth for it this year,” Ryan said. “And it speaks a lot for Coach K to be able to adjust and say, ‘All right, we’re going to start the game in 2-3.’ ”
The zone caused Brey to sit down on Notre Dame’s bench. He usually stands, but he wanted to portray calm to convince his players to employ patience. He told his assistants, “Shut up when we’re on offense.”
Duke still pulled away early in the second half, leaning on Grayson Allen, who scored 27 points and played every second until he fouled out with 16 seconds to play. Notre Dame’s defense stiffened, Duke’s shots stopped falling and V.J. Beachem drilled three late threes, including one with 2:33 left in regulation that gave Notre Dame its first lead of the second half.
Mostly, Auguste would not let Notre Dame fade. The teams combined for 84 rebounds; Auguste grabbed more than a quarter of them.
“He was a freaking animal,” Ryan said.
“I don’t think there’s a player playing better in the country than Zach Auguste the last three weeks,” Brey said.
Auguste will keep playing this week in Washington. Duke will head back to Durham, toppled again by Notre Dame. The Irish will try to take down Carolina again, perhaps with a shot of Jameson waiting afterward.