Sunday March 15th, 2015

Everything was seemingly going against Notre Dame

The Irish entered Saturday's ACC tournament final in Greensboro, N.C. having never won a conference championship in their program history and facing a sea of fans in Carolina blue. Even though they took down mighty Duke a night before, bringing home the hardware would require something that no team outside of North Carolina had done since 1993 — beat the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels to win an ACC title. 

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None of that mattered for Notre Dame, which used an offensive explosion in the second half to swiftly put away North Carolina, 90-82.

It wasn't always an easy ride. After the Irish built a five-point halftime lead, everything nearly fell apart  midway through the second half. The Tar Heels turned on the jets out of the gate, quickly erasing the deficit and going ahead on a three-pointer by Marcus Paige not even three minutes in.

By the time Paige hit another three-pointer with 10 minutes remaining, putting UNC up 63-54, everything seemed aligned for the ACC trophy to return to the state for the first time since Duke's win in 2011. The crowd was roaring, the Tar Heels were poised to take their first double-digit lead and Notre Dame seemed seconds from imploding.

Not so fast.

Instead, the Irish kicked off one of the most miraculous runs of this college basketball season. It started with a Jerian Grant layup and ended with a Pat Connaughton dunk, but it's what happened in between that mattered. The peak came when Steve Vasturia and Connaughton drilled back-to-back threes to take back the lead, a sequence that permanently changed the course of the game.

Four straight points by Zach Auguste and another three by Connaughton were only part of what followed, and by the time it was over Notre Dame showed exactly why it will be so dangerous in March. The total damage? A 26-3 run, 2:45 remaining and an 80-66 Irish lead. 

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The win is a historical moment for Notre Dame basketball — if you want to know how important it is to the Irish, just ask coach Mike Brey.

"It's as big as any we've had," he giddily told ESPN after the game.

This is a team that was picked to finish seventh in the ACC in October and one that's been battling with the likes of Duke, UNC, Virginia and Louisville all year. But it's not just the confidence a win like this could give Notre Dame that makes it dangerous. The 26-3 run they went on is why the Irish are dangerous. What they did in turning around a game that was falling out of reach in a hostile environment was sensational.  

With their explosive offense and spectacular ball movement, the Irish will be a tough out for any team, as Jahlil Okafor and the Blue Devils and Tar Heels learned this weekend. That's not to say the Irish don't have flaws or vulnerabilities. Their bench only accounted for five of the team's 90 points against UNC, which is hardly a positive sign if Grant or another starter find themselves in foul trouble.

But if Grant and company can play as well as they did against the Tar Heels, it may not matter. The star guard poured in 24 points and added 10 assists while Connaughton scored 20 and Auguste added 16 and grabbed 13 boards. North Carolina was led by Paige, who finished with 24 points. Forward Brice Johnson scored an efficient 20 on 10-of-12 shooting.

Both teams will now wait for Selection Sunday to find out their next destination. With Iowa State's win over Kansas in the Big 12 championship game, the Irish still seem on course for a No. 3 seed. UNC also only strengthened its resume in Greensboro, leaving with a 3-1 mark and wins over Louisville and Virginia in its pocket. 

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