Saturday January 31st, 2015

In the final three minutes of Notre Dame's game vs. Pittsburgh, Jerian Grant gave his Fighting Irish exactly what they needed. Unfortunately, that was all Grant could muster.

The Irish’s All-America-caliber point guard opened the game with a steal and a layup in the first four minutes and then disappeared until three-quarters of the way through the second half to hit 1-of-2 free throws.

Then, with 2:57 left and Notre Dame down by seven, Grant finally came alive. He hit an off-balance jumper and a three; he drove to the basket and got fouled. He scored his team’s final 10 points and even put the Irish up by one with 32 seconds remaining. But for once this season for Notre Dame, it wasn’t enough. Pitt’s Jamel Artis, who led all scorers with 20 points, and James Robinson (15) did just enough down the final stretch to help the Panthers put the Irish away, 76-72.

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The loss is a good reminder of how difficult it is to win the ACC. The Big 12 has been getting most of the attention this season because it has a decent shot of sending eight out of 10 teams to the NCAA tournament. But the ACC has stronger teams at the top (four teams in’s top 15), and as Pitt showed on Saturday, it has a solid group of second-tier teams capable of pulling off upsets.

The loss should be a wake-up call for Notre Dame, which had been winning but by razor-thin margins throughout ACC play. Since their conference season began on Jan. 3, eight of the Irish’s nine game have been decided by seven points or fewer. Two have gone into overtime. Eventually, a close game was going to go the other way. Considering the Irish were coming off a season-defining win against Duke on Wednesday and that Pittsburgh is one of college basketball’s toughest road environments, it’s no shock that the Irish dropped this one.

There’s never a great time to lose in an ultra-competitive conference like the ACC, but the Irish seem to have the easiest remaining schedule among ACC contenders. With conference play right around the midway mark, they have only two truly challenging games remaining: At Duke (Feb. 7) and at Louisville (March 4).

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Compare that to the other four teams with a decent shot at first place in the conference. Top-dog Virginia (7-0 ACC) begins its gauntlet on Saturday night against Duke, then goes on to face UNC (away), Louisville (home) and N.C. State (away). It’s hard to imagine the Cavaliers emerging from a four-game stretch like that still undefeated.

North Carolina (7-1 ACC) had been battling with Notre Dame for second place, with both teams boasting just one conference loss. The Tar Heels have to take on Louisville (away) on Saturday afternoon, and a Cardinals win would put them in a three-way tie for second place. And, of course, North Carolina still has to face Virginia and Duke, twice.

The Blue Devils are on the outside of the conference race, with three losses already, but it’s easy to imagine them jumping up the standings as other top teams beat each other up.

Pitt doesn’t have a prayer for first place in the ACC, but its NCAA tournament hopes are still alive. The Panthers essentially get a bye week, facing Bryant on Monday, before embarking on a crucial five-game stretch next Saturday, when they take on Syracuse (home), and then Louisville (away), North Carolina (home), Virginia (away) and Syracuse again (away).

It’s going to be a fun February in the ACC.

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