by Jeff Laughlin

Notre Dame had already spoiled the party. Duke and UNC would not cap the recent run of Greensboro ACC Tournaments; their classic rivalry would have to wait to renew tired vitriol and hyped nonsense.

Mike Brey, Notre Dame’s head coach, sat on a stage on March 13 with two of the players he designated most important after beating one of the best teams in the country. He looked like a red-faced mess — like he had just finished off a few at the bar rather than eliminated Duke in a semifinal game. Brey sat facing forward, his body at full rest against the back of his chair, awaiting the final stream of reporters to enter a small auditorium off the Greensboro Coliseum floor.

If Brey had considered the structure of his team’s play over the last two nights, he might have noted his alarm in how good his first halves had went, holding on to leads like crumbling statues tenuously maintain their extremities before falling completely apart.

Instead, Brey disregarded those nights and looked forward to the next one, balancing his knowledge of his schemes and the doubt any coach has of the task ahead.

Balance between certainty and doubt created the mystery behind this entire men’s ACC Tournament. The ACC, for the first time in years, held a middle-heavy set of contestants. While at the top sat an unbelievable set of schools — UVA, Duke, Notre Dame and Louisville — the middlemen that could make serious runs in the postseason numbered nearly as many with UNC, NC State and Miami, all with enough talent to make it tough on the top tier. That did not count Syracuse, who recused themselves from all postseason tournaments amid a series of well-reported NCAA allegations.

The real advantage to being a top team in the tournament was an added two days of rest. The bottom third battled on Wednesday afternoon for the right to play against that middle tier on a Thursday.

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Do we really believe that anything watches over us? Sports faith, as a rule, is belief in this all-encompassing entity, yes. But in the proper context, we believe because not believing is vile.

The ultimate God is one that shows Her face when you need it the most. Being a Duke and UNC fan must be like actually seeing Her every now and again.

People ask why NC State fans rush the court when they beat Duke. Well, it’s kind of like seeing a glimpse of a naked God. You saw something so undeniably difficult to understand and yet so beautiful that you had to act demonstrably and reprehensibly just to try and make the sighting realistic.

You had to deface a beautiful scene so that you could remember that you were human.

Unfortunately, those glimpses prove difficult to recreate. Try and repaint the Sistine Chapel. Win the Kentucky Derby twice. Re-create that sunset you saw on acid, but without the drugs. Impossible.

But seeing that beauty is irrevocable. You’ll still remember that tournament blowout because it happened at the most critical time. You’ll remember each dunk because they happened at full speed, with all the players in shape and playing for a real prize. And you’ll remember the champions because the survival instinct kicked in right in front of you.

Why, then, do fans feel murderous rage in a blowout?

In this case, because the Duke kids dove around like fools up by 30, hacking at every shot and dribble like they had heroic intentions. They showed themselves as brazen and brash — their intent praised as heavenly when it was really just the same dreck that makes us hate people who grouse about coupons in grocery lines.

The packed house awaiting the night games on March 12 had an ugly, yet tenably satisfying UNC win to think about while awaiting Duke-NC State. In their minds, NC State loomed as the only real barrier to the much ballyhooed and overly hyped UNC-Duke Part III in the minds of fans streaming in. The NC State fans, having watched their Wolfpack essentially dismantle the Blue Devils in their January meeting in Raleigh, had high hopes.

State fans marched in nervously and raucously, the team looking as they always did — casually interested in playing but not wholly devoted to worry. State had won six of their last seven. They had decisively beaten UNC at the Dean Smith Center for the first time in approximately 300 years, crushed Syracuse the day that the NCAA passed down harsh sanctions on the Orange and gutted out a bye in the first round of the ACC Tournament. They had beaten Pitt, once thought of as a mid-tier ACC club, by double digits the previous evening. Pitt’s Cat Barber had continued his amazing run of games, scoring 34.

Seldom had a team really handed it to a Duke team like NC State had earlier this season, so no one in the building had any doubt that this would be a classic. Of course, NC State would have to survive an early run from a better and more talented team.

They didn’t do that.

Instead, the game played like the beach fighting high tide; the waves lapping over soaked sand and knocking over once-resilient children.

Duke won by a lot. That’s what happens in Greensboro when you’re Duke.

The only real excitement came when Amile Jefferson, up by around 100 points, decided to set a blind screen on Cat Barber at full speed. Oh, the things people will do when they have power. Like the people of Greensboro and SB36, Barber never saw the hit coming.

He left the game with a rumored concussion and/or back spasm and the referees never said a word. If cleanliness is godliness, then Amile Jefferson’s hands will never brush the face of St. Peter.

Such was that game, and such is life.

The basement of the league proved how tough a conference the ACC has become. Boston College, perennial bottom-feeders, won four of their last five before escaping Georgia Tech in the opening round.

They faced a 5-seed Tar Heel team that, at times, looked like a 1 seed and a mid-tier challenger at various times during the season. The book looked solid on UNC — good defenses could shut down their big men and force them to take jump shots. With a beleaguered Marcus Paige and a wealth of shooters who had not been hitting well all year, the percentages favored any team that pushed them out of the paint.

Boston College, despite ACC Player of the Year candidate Olivier Hanlon, had no real chance to do that. UNC took care of their bottom-of-the-league opponent, struggling only when Hanlon and senior Tim Heckmann broke free off the ball. Through small runs, UNC pulled away from Boston College and won bigger than even pundits would have believed.

BC represented the last gasp of the bottom-feeders. Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech had all met their fate in the March 10 games, attended like a children’s ballet practice.

When UNC finished them off in a second-half flurry, the crowd got to focus their undivided attention on middle-tier matchups on March 12. Of course, NC State’s fate has been covered, but UNC and Miami had real shots at wounded, high-seeded foes.

Louisville-UNC had all the potential to create a patient offense versus tough-minded defense, but Lousiville has fallen on tough times of late. Suspending Chris Jones, their multi-talented point guard who both ran their full-court press and distributed the ball nicely to their raw but talented forward Montrezl Harrell, absolutely killed their momentum two-thirds of the way through conference play. Unlike Duke, who cut ties with enigmatic guard Rasheed Sulaimon and seemingly improved, Louisville lost both their offensive and defensive identities.

Gone was the disruptive vanguard of the team — the full-court press had been abandoned. Gone was the distribution — Harrell went from looking like an All-American to indolent off-the-ball cutter that often got lost in the offensive shuffle. Their shooting percentage plummeted, putting insane amounts of pressure on their beleaguered yet still effective half-court defense.

Gone was the strategic machismo of hall-of-fame coach Rick Pitino.

Amidst all that struggle, UNC came in on a high note. Since the loss to NC State on their home floor, UNC had changed its offensive rotation. Justin Jackson began shooting like a high school All-American instead of the 26 percent 3-point shooter he played like before. Brice Johnson started posting up defenders with renewed vigor and had quietly stolen the mantle of offensive star from junior Marcus Paige.

UNC transformed from imminently beatable to consistently tough in a matter of a month. They took a much more talented Duke squad to two close games. While UNC lost those games, the nation saw a team willing to find mismatches rather than constantly look to create them. While the “game came to them” mantra spewed from the mouths of decrepit old pundits, it was actually true this time.

And Louisville had lost theirs.

So it surprised the fans that UNC trailed by four going into halftime. The first half reeked of bad shot selection and even worse defensive rotations, leaving Louisville’s Harrell open for dunks on backdoor cuts and forward Terry Rozier wide open off of simple screen and rolls. Louisville struggled to score, as they had for weeks, but they got essentially what they wanted: UNC forced bad jumpers over lengthy defenders and played lazy defense. It got ugly.

UNC coach Roy Williams, not known for his in-game adjustments, had seen enough. In the second half, he countered the Louisville screen-and-roll by pitting his most disruptive defender, JP Tokoto, on freshman guard Quentin Snider. Snider reacted by losing his patience, jacking up shot after shot with Tokoto emerging from screens. Harrell went long periods between monster dunks, and Rozier no longer got the easy looks. Those long periods produced few points.

Louisville got totally lost on offense, attacking well-defended spots on the floor and taking contested shots. They had no creativity. Even Harrell, usually so adept at going hard off of screens, could not find a comfortable spots. They missed Chris Jones in exactly this kind of game — long, tough, grinding ones where they needed someone to challenge lesser players. Without him they resembled lost children, tossing the ball around without much purpose, waiting for the adults to inform them of the rules.

UNC used a steady diet of Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and open threes to put Louisville away. The Tar Heels got to the line with impunity, made the right decisions down the stretch and advanced to Friday’s game against UVA, 70-60.

Still decidedly in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament, Miami faced similar odds as UNC in the nightcap. The Duke fans had already streamed out, leaving a small sea of Hurricanes fans praying for an upset by a bid thief.

Of course, as the crowd dispersed, they did so with the anticipation of something beautiful. Duke merely had to dispatch the winner of the Miami-Notre Dame Thursday nightcap on Friday and the Tobacco Road championship would be set.

Notre Dame nearly made it easier for UNC. After a gorgeous first-half in which they hit every nearly open shot — 7-8 from 3 and an overall percentage above 60 percent — the Fighting Irish came out in the second half determined to make Miami look good.

To their credit, Miami played a gorgeous 20 minutes. They trailed 43-25 coming out of the locker room and boasted no real offensive game plan. They took more pointless shots than open ones in the first half, and treated the lane as if it was lava against their bare feet.

In the second half, though, the Hurricanes spurred their fate with defense, the great leveler of large deficits. Miami adjusted to cover low and high screens, closing out better on shooters. They began penetrating on offense to get to the line and make up points with the clock stopped. They cut off a staple of Notre Dame’s offense — a mid-lane curl that intended to draw defenders out of the paint, leaving defenders on an island with the ultra-quick Notre Dame guards Demetrius Jackson and Jerius Grant.

Instead of following those cuts, Miami stood fast; leaving defenders in the path of drivers rather than off-the-ball slashers.

This left some open shooters, but Notre Dame missed open shots for long stretches. That helped too.

Offensively, Angel Rodriguez led the Miami charge, tying the score in only 10 minutes. That they made up 18 points in 10 minutes amazed the thin, Miami-supported crowd.

To their chagrin, Miami’s get-to-the-rim-at-all-costs strategy left them limping and tired. Teams can only go full-speed for so long and can only absorb so much contact.

Miami discovered its limit.

Notre Dame found its legs — fresh from the double-bye earned as the three seed. They hit jumpers just often enough to fend Miami off.

Despite a terrible second half, Notre Dame would meet Duke in the semi-finals.

People with basketball in their blood knew that Notre Dame had played Miami perfectly. They hadn’t expended all their energy and had come away with a tough win. But Notre Dame would walk into the March 13 game as underdogs.

Duke had crushed its opponent, were riding a 12-game win streak and had an enemy in its sights that was not the one standing before them. Notre Dame deserved respect, but probably wouldn’t get it.

Perhaps that explained the horrible start.

Notre Dame looked the part of aggressor early. They ran their break to perfection and played as good a first nine minutes as Duke had seen all year. They got into the lane, finished on drives and essentially dared Duke to throw the ball to anyone other than ACC Player of the Year Jahlil Okafor. Duke fought for position battles rather than hit cutters and work the ball around.

Duke’s defense relied heavily on guard pressure all year, but Notre Dame squelched that. Seniors Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton abused the smaller Duke players, and Demetrius Jackson, the usual ballhandler, played off the ball a little more to neutralize Quinn Cook’s steals and disruptive ability.

It worked. Duke watched the Notre Dame lead blossom in the first half: 20-9, 26-13, 37-22, and a halftime lead of 41-26.

Duke had long since switched to a zone — something Coach Mike Krzyzewski rarely/never used until this season to hide the defensive struggles of Okafor. As gifted as Okafor looked offensively as a near-consensus No. 1 NBA draft pick, he appeared just as lost on defense. The zone didn’t really work either. He often roamed to jump-shooters, leaving the lane open or, instead of staying in his area, tried to form double-teams that left Notre Dame with easy opportunities.

He dominated anyone near him on offense, though, proving to be the only weapon Duke had in an unbelievably poor first half.

Everyone knew the run would come, though. Even Notre Dame.

Duke came out with a small lineup that, while they didn’t dent the lead, roused the usual starter Justise Winslow. Krzyzewski benched him to start the half, and he responded with a run all his own.

Every steal had his fingerprint on it. Every Euro-step layup had his defender guessing. And every time Duke got close, he drove the ball to the basket to bring them there. He tipped in misses; he got in passing lanes; he wrecked Notre Dame’s confidence by himself. When he left the game to rest, Duke looked out of sorts and fell back into larger deficits.

In the end, those deficits did Duke in. Down only 5 with 3:39 to go, Jerian Grant drew his fourth foul and the Duke crowd roared. Duke had Notre Dame exactly where they wanted them.

Except the ACC Player of the Year couldn’t hit his free throws. Of his two massive faults, the free-throw percentage gets less attention since they lead so often. This time, though, Notre Dame played the percentages to their advantage. When Okafor got the ball on the block, they fouled. Their own big man, Zach Auguste, had given his best defensive effort and fouled out. Their backup, a much smaller and less defensively effective Bonzie Colson had one job: Foul Okafor.

Colson did his job. Okafor unfurled his lengthy sets of ball fakes and spin moves and Colson, right at the peak of those moves, reached in. Okafor missed his free throws and stopped getting the ball. Duke missed long jumpers as a result.

So Brey sat under bright lights. He knew that the locals were circling him, that he still had one more huge game in the ACC’s ultimate backyard.

“There would be no greater achievement in the history of our program,” he said of winning an ACC title. And then he hit North Carolina where it hurt the most:

“For us, I guess it’s only fitting that you have to go through Duke and North Carolina down here on their turf. I think we put an asterisk by it if we got it — if you get through both of them in the semis and the final.”

Brey smirked when he said it, as if he’d exposed the mortal wound the press and the fans had all been ignoring.

So when UNC came out to a massive home crowd and took a good-sized early lead, Notre Dame knew no one supported them. When Demetrius Jackson stole a lazy pass in the UNC backcourt and screamed after a thunderous two-handed dunk, Notre Dame had taken their first lead. When Jerian Grant executed two blow-bys in a row to push the lead to 7, Notre Dame had UNC on the ropes. When Grant got his third foul and Notre Dame kept the lead at five to end the first half, it seemed all but elementary.

Then UNC came out absolutely smoking. Brey used two timeouts to break up a long UNC run. Marcus Paige looked like the star again. Isaiah Hicks, a seldom-used backup, had 8 points on offensive rebounds and put-backs. Brice Johnson dominated Bonzie Colson time and again.

UNC simply could not miss shots. Notre Dame wavered from down four to down nine multiple times, yet they did something most ACC teams could not do in the past when Duke or UNC knocked them down in a championship game: They kept that deficit manageable.

At 65-56, Brey stuck his valuable center, Zach Auguste, on UNC’s more offensively polished and much quicker Johnson. He towered over Johnson, forcing him to pass out of the post. On picks, Pat Connaughton would skirt Johnson’s frame and poke away entry passes. Jerian Grant began insane pressure on the ballhandlers alongside Steve Vasturia and Demetrius Jackson.

The defense clamped so tightly around UNC’s neck that UNC would often throw passes before checking to see if defenders were there. The shots, that earlier fell as assuredly as did the rain all weekend, now strayed like wild dogs.

Meanwhile Notre Dame, like some body-switch comedy, had taken over. They hit shots, finished in transition, made all of their free throws. Jerian Grant, the man who should have been ACC Player of the Year, played like it. Vasturia and Connaughton traded threes. Notre Dame, for seven solid minutes, whipped Carolina’s ass as thoroughly as anyone had in decades.

That backyard crowd stood in stunned silence.

All told, in 6:42, Notre Dame had gone on a 22-2 run more dazzling than any I’ve seen in an ACC Tournament. After a UNC timeout, they scored 4 more. They went from 9 down to 14 up, a 26-3 difference.

Any two fans could have conversed with one another from across the stadium when the bands were silent. The dozens of Notre Dame fans in attendance beamed, but not too proudly. This was not their backyard.

Instead, they waited for the fans to stream out. They waited for the confetti. They waited, like they had for decades, for everything to make sense. This was their first conference championship, so they had to do it right.

Brey walked right up to Grant, his captain so to speak, and hugged him as the clock ran out. They cut down both nets, and carried their trophy into the press room, faces lit up in front of a still-stunned group of mostly local reporters.

When Mike Brey spoke, he did so with adulation unlike any he’d ever experienced.

Grant said of the run to defeat UNC: “I really didn’t know what happened. We were down 7 or 9. Next thing I know I looked and we were up 3. It was kind of a blur.”

That’s what it takes to win the ACC tournaments: a disregard for location, opponents, gods and numbers. Grant, Connaughton and Brey were all smiles as they sat behind the trophy. They’d never done this before, but they acted like they’d been there all along. As the tournament moves to Washington DC, Brooklyn and Charlotte over the next few years, who knows if they will be there again?

All Brey knows now is that he got his asterisk and no amount of second-guessing can strip him of it.

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