Notre Dame crashes ACC final, prevents Duke-North Carolina blueblood matchup

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Tradition has never been more disposable in college sports than right now.

Rivalries are killed off. Conferences are carved up and realigned. The old map bears scant resemblance to the modern map. That's as true of the Atlantic Coast Conference as anywhere else.

Louisville showed up at its first ACC basketball tournament this year. Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame wandered in from the Big East last year. In the next four years, this tourney will be played in NBA arenas in Washington, Brooklyn twice and Charlotte before coming back here, its traditional anchor location and site of the league office. And even this last tourney here at Greensboro Coliseum is in a new format, with the entire event moved up a day for a Saturday night final instead of the traditional Sunday afternoon.

So what happened Friday was fitting.

Within sight of an old-school, all-Tobacco Road championship game between Duke and North Carolina, Notre Dame blew up the blueblood matchup.

It may also have impacted the league's bid to have a pair of No. 1 seeds. But that's for the NCAA tournament selection committee to sort out as results continue to come in from other conferences.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski reacts to a call during game against Notre Dame. (USA Today)
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski reacts to a call during game against Notre Dame. (USA Today)

In the nightcap of two scintillating semifinals, the third-seeded Fighting Irish stunned the sleepwalking No. 2 seed Blue Devils with a dominant first half, racing out to a 15-point lead. Then they held on through the second half for a 74-64 victory to reach their first conference tournament title game ever.

Now all the Irish have to do is beat the fifth-seeded Tar Heels – who pulled a major upset of their own, beating regular-season champion Virginia 71-67 – Saturday night.

"There would be no greater achievement in the history of our program," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "This would be as good as anything we've done in our history, and it's something, personally, I've kind of been searching for to get to Saturday night and play for a tournament championship. It eluded us. I think we went to six semifinals in the Big East and just had some great games and couldn't get to the next night. …

"I guess it's only fitting that to get it, we'd have to go through Duke and North Carolina down here on their turf."

The Fighting Irish victory was all the more surprising when you consider that they lost to Duke by 30 points in Cameron Indoor Stadium all of 34 days ago. It's fair to wonder whether the combination of that blowout, plus the ease of Duke's quarterfinal rout of North Carolina State, had the young Devils a bit complacent coming into this game.

"I think we had won 12 in a row and playing lights-out basketball, and I don't know from last night to tonight if we just took that for granted on the necessary components to do that," Mike Krzyzewski said. "For about the first 24 minutes, I'm not sure. I don't know who we were coaching tonight."

For both Duke and Virginia, these losses were characterized by a woefully slow start that could not be overcome. There are reasons for both programs to be concerned heading into next week's win-or-go-home Big Dance.

For the Cavaliers, the concern is the sudden disappearance of their trademark defense. North Carolina strafed the nation's No. 2 defense, according to Ken Pomeroy's advanced statistics, shooting a scarcely believable 54.8 percent from the field. That's the best shooting performance the Cavaliers have allowed in 163 games, dating back to the Maui Invitational in 2010.

"What we try to hang our hat on really was porous," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "It kind of unraveled defensively."

Virginia still nearly overcame that, edging within a possession of the lead or a tie several times. Twice in the final two minutes, the ball wound up in the hands of junior Justin Anderson, and twice he launched 3-point shots that missed.

Anderson is the other element of Virginia's NCAA tournament concern – and probably the bigger one. The defensive lapse is fixable; fast-tracking the Cavaliers' most athletic player back to impact-player status is less easy.

Before Thursday's quarterfinals, Anderson hadn't played since Feb. 7. He had surgery on a broken finger, and then on the verge of coming back last week suffered an appendicitis. In two games here, the clearly rusty wing player missed all six of his shots and failed to record a point, assist, steal or make a free throw.

"We're going to need him," Bennett said. "So I thought those were important minutes he got."

Duke must worry about a defense that ranks 57th nationally, lowest of anyone in Pomeroy's top 12. That's been a bit of an issue all year, but the fresh blueprint Notre Dame provided for NCAA opponents can and likely will be used against the Devils.

The Irish drove around and through Duke, making just two 3-pointers all night but shooting 55 percent from 2-point range and getting to the line 25 times. When the Blue Devils played the zone that has been useful at times this year, Notre Dame punctured it with freshman reserve Bonzie Colson catching the ball in the high post and doing damage against the slow-reacting Duke defenders.

Colson had a career-high-tying 17 points, 14 of them in the first half. Playing against likely No. 1 NBA draft pick Jahlil Okafor, he proved that there was room for two freshman post players to star in the Coliseum Friday.

And now Colson gets another chance to play here in the cradle of ACC basketball on Saturday, while Okafor's one season in a Duke uniform heads to its final stage. On that stage, the pressure will only intensify.

"Hopefully, we're still in a point in time where we can learn from this," Krzyzewski said. "Next game we play, there is no more learning. You've got to do it."