ACC Basketball

Irish Ruin Our Duke/UNC Title Game Dream

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You know what they always say…it’s tough to win a basketball game playing only a half a game.

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish, in just their second year in the ACC, will face North Carolina in the title game Saturday night, after beating Duke, 74-64.

Unlike their 30-point implosion in Durham a month ago, the Irish came out motivated, attacking the interior (16 of their first 18 points came in the paint), getting five “and one’s” in the first half alone. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils looked completely hungover from their win over NC State and Coach K knew it, as he called a timeout less than a minute into the game. But it did little, as Duke turned it over five times while scoring just five points in the game’s first eight minutes. 

In fact, Notre Dame won every four-minute stretch between TV timeouts, as they slowly built their lead up to sixteen, before walking into half with a 41-26 advantage. On defense, they never doubled Okafor, who was 7-for-11 from the field, while everyone not named Okafor was 4-for-16.

In the second, the Blue Devils again couldn’t stop Notre Dame inside, as the Irish extended their lead to 17. However, after being benched to start the second half, Duke’s Justise Winslow finally remembered he had a game to play and came out on fire, driving to the lane and grabbing boards. He would score 11 points and seven rebounds in the second half (finishing 11/11 for the game), while Okafor continued to abuse the Irish inside (he finished with 28) and slowly the Blue Devils got within reach.

With under two to play, Duke was down four with the ball, but sadly for them, Okafor was at the line and if you’re cheering for the Blue Devils, you don’t want to see Jahlil Okafor on the line when the game is on the line. He would end up missing both and on the other end of the floor, Pat Connaughton hit what might as well be considered a game-winning fade away to extend the lead back to six. One turnover later by Quinn Cook and it was just a matter of Notre Dame hitting free throws to seal the deal.

The obvious hero for the Irish was Bonzie Colson. The freshman was in beast mode, scoring 14 first half points. He came in when Okafor sat and scored a couple easy baskets against Plumlee. However, when Okafor came back in, so did Zach Auguste, so Colson moved to the 4-spot, where Duke couldn’t contain him with their smaller lineup. When Coach K went zone, Colston owned the middle. He didn’t hit any shots in the second half, but it didn’t matter, as the damage was done.

In the end, Mike Brey’s strategy to let Okafor have his points worked. Is it a sound strategy going forward against Duke? We’ll see. The fact is, the Blue Devils had plenty of open looks, they just didn’t hit them, going 3-for-17 from deep. Two in particular stand out. Twice when Duke was trying to make a comeback in the second half with a chance to get the lead to under double digits, they got Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook both open at the arc in transition, with no defender in sight. Both missed the shot. You can’t discount those misses. They could be game changers and yet they’re back breakers.

Okafor led all scorers with his 28 points, but he went just 2-for-8 from the FT line. Duke will not win a championship this year if that continues and it’s been 33 games now, why would it suddenly change?

Tyus Jones had an uncharacteristic four turnovers and continued to play bad perimeter defense, as any Irish he was guarding was able to get inside. Quinn Cook had his worst offensive game of the year, hitting just 2-for-12 from the floor, 1-for-8 from deep.

I guess if the Blue Devils want to look at the bright side, they get an extra days rest before the tournament. The problem is, did they and/or Virginia just blow their chance at a 1-seed? Obviously we still need to see what Villanova, Wisconsin and Arizona do in their conference tournament games, but if all three win out…do both the Blue Devils and Cavaliers fall to the two-seed. Could Duke suddenly be shipped to the Midwest with Kentucky? We’ll find out Sunday.

As for Notre Dame, they were only 2-for-8 from three, but hit 50% from the floor and hit an impressive 22-25 from the FT line. Jerian Grant and Demetius Jackson combined for 28 points, 10 assists and went a perfect 10-for-10 from the free throw line.

They go 2-1 against Duke this season, as Mike Brey is now 3-1 against his old coach. They advance to the title game where they’ll meet North Carolina. These two squared off back on January 25 and Notre Dame walked away with a solid 71-70 victory in Chapel Hill.


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