Notre Dame keeps spoiling the party at the ACC tournament. At least this year, it’s on Mike Brey’s turf, as the D.C.-area native was quick to allude to when he spotted the Washington Bullets’ 1978 NBA title banner.
Last year, Brey’s Irish beat Duke and North Carolina on their turf in Greensboro on its way to the title. The ACC’s two biggest rivals were well on their way to an eagerly anticipated third meeting when Notre Dame got in the way again Thursday.
If Brey openly savored those circumstances last year, the former Duke assistant – a career 8-5 against Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams – isn’t enjoying it any less this time around.
“It’s really helped our credibility in the league to do what we’ve done against Duke and Carolina,” Brey said. “It’s given us a great identity in the league. But yeah, to go through both of them again, to go through Carolina and get to the championship game, it would be huge.”
So instead of a rematch of Duke and North Carolina after the first two games came down to the final possession, it’s a rematch of last year’s ACC title game in Friday’s first semifinal.
North Carolina, perhaps bolstered by its experience in holding off Duke in Durham last Saturday, looked utterly dominant in overcoming a sleepy start to blow Pittsburgh off the floor, 88-71. The Blue Devils, meanwhile, were up 16 on Notre Dame early in the second half, before running out of gas and losing in overtime, 84-79.
The Irish may be missing Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton from last season’s champions, but the Notre Dame offense is no less explosive. The Tar Heels were up 15 last year before the Irish put them through a wood-chipper of 3-point bombs and up 10 early in the second half in South Bend last month.
What Notre Dame did to Duke was even more impressive, but it’ll take all of that for the Irish against North Carolina on Friday, because the Tar Heels, after looking like they slept through their wake-up call, unleashed considerable fury on Pittsburgh.
This was North Carolina in abstract: A few sleepy minutes, a few disinterested minutes and stretches where no other team in the country could even hope to keep up.
Kennedy Meeks was the worst of the early offenders, earning a quick hook from Williams, before the Tar Heels got a first-half lift from Joel Berry’s hustle. With 2:32 to play in the first half, Theo Pinson came into the game for the second time and helped jumpstart a 10-0 run to close out the half where the baskets came so quickly and so furiously even Pinson couldn’t keep up with the score.
It was as if North Carolina just flipped a switch. Which Pinson said wasn’t far off.
“On the bench were were saying that at that point in the game, we need to make a run, put our foot down,” Pinson said. “That’s right when (Williams) called my name.”
North Carolina hasn’t always been able to muster such dominance on command, but the Tar Heels seem to have arrived in a particularly feisty mood at this point in the season, even Williams. He objected to a question about North Carolina’s ACC schedule with what decorum insists must be described as a “stable yard epithet” and a lengthy and entertaining Socratic dialogue about the teams the Tar Heels did play (and couldn’t beat), a list that includes Notre Dame.
Much has been made of Duke’s depth issues, but Notre Dame only goes seven deep and utilized only 24 bench minutes Thursday while North Carolina used 11 players effectively and cruised to the finish.
It’s all pointing North Carolina’s way, but it looked like it was all pointing toward a third Duke-Carolina game early in the second half before Notre Dame got in the way again, to Brey’s continual amusement.