SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The thought occurred to Eric Atkins earlier in the morning, and here it was Saturday, born into outrageous, brilliant reality. So after a long pass sailed into a Duke player’s hands and his last-gasp went awry as the horn blew, Notre Dame’s senior point guard pivoted toward the stands. In a mob at midcourt, two arms shot up above everyone’s heads. Time for one more bit of direction.
Atkins waved those arms, waved them for all to see, waved everyone back who had the notion to flood the Purcell Pavilion floor in celebration. Notre Dame’s first game as a member of the ACC may be matched by no others to come, deliverance from weeks of mayhem found in a 79-77 victory over the No. 7 Blue Devils. No one could have anticipated it except those who did. That list started with Atkins, brows furrowed and scowl on his face for those who came running down, wondering where this came from.
“I want us to expect these type of wins,” Atkins said. “I understand most people didn’t give us a chance in this game. But this program has gotten the type of wins to expect these types of big wins. That’s why I didn’t want anyone to rush the court.”
They couldn’t be blamed, not when the day breathed life back into Notre Dame’s season by gale force. By Christmas, a preseason top 25 team had suffered one of the worst in-game collapses in memory, the loss of their leading scorer and top playmaker and the transfer of a former four-star recruit viewed as a foundation for the future. And now here, unsparingly, maybe even inhumanely, came Duke, and generally everyone figured it lucky if the Blue Devils left any meat on the bones.
The theme of a pregame video montage was “The wait is over.” An ACC official and lead referee Karl Hess posed for photos before the game to commemorate the occasion. There was no minimizing the moment. But Notre Dame played free and fearless before an audience that filled every seat. It was the on-court echo of the fourth of the building blocks Irish coach Mike Brey posted in each of his players’ lockers on the night of Dec. 26: Nothing To Lose.
And as Rodney Hood and three-point shooting overcame slapdash defense and the worst day of Jabari Parker’s short college career, as Duke built a 10-point second-half lead, the Irish shrugged. They ran off 10 straight points of their own to fuel a 20-4 run capped by forward Pat Connaughton viciously dunking on Parker. They scored on every possession they needed to score on in the final 90 seconds, freshman Demetrius Jackson came up with a steal and two free throws with 9.7 seconds left to cinch it, and a besieged team finished a gut rehab.
“I said this leading up to this game – to beat that program, the flagship program of the ACC, it’s a little bit like when I got here in 2000 when we were fortunate enough to beat Syracuse and Connecticut,” Brey said. “Those were program wins. You looked like you belonged. This is the team you have to beat in the ACC if you want to look like you belong.”
It all looked so odd from the start, particularly for Duke, but in just about every way. Two hours before tipoff, Parker ran through standard warmups, lofted a ball off the backboard…and blew the layup. He retrieved it and finished on the do-over. Moments later, a courtside observer gushed about the prized freshman’s surprising shooting touch and then laughed when Parker, on cue, airballed an elbow-extended jumper.
Meaningless, fluky moments, of course. Then about an hour before the game, smoke billowed near the broadcast row. A spotlight for CBS’s pregame analyst confab quite literally caught on fire. Just before introductions, the first few bars of the national anthem were sung in near silence; the microphone hadn’t been turned on. No, it was this kind of afternoon, one of airballs and fireballs, something brewing besides the residue of cooked metal.
“It felt different,” said Hood, who almost alone carried Duke through with 27 points, though he also committed the fateful turnover that quashed his team’s chances. “They outplayed us. No excuse there. When we needed a stop, we didn’t get a stop. I can name at least 10 plays where it was a breaking point and we didn’t pull it off.”
Parker, meanwhile, missed shots badly and had another smothered emphatically and finished with seven points on 2-of-10 shooting, benched for the final, decisive 3:35 of the game. “He wasn’t playing well,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “For any kid who is not playing well, you should try to find a kid that is playing well. But that happens. Sometimes kids don’t play well throughout the game. He just wasn’t having a good game.”
Ultimately this was only on Parker insofar as he contributed, along with everyone else, to a Duke defense that failed it at every meaningful juncture. The reinvigorated Blue Devils had allowed just 63 points per game over their previous seven outings. On Saturday, Notre Dame shot 62.5 percent in the second half and 52.6 percent overall, amassing 44 points in the paint. The Irish even scored four times directly off out-of-bounds plays. This happens about as frequently as asteroids hitting Earth.
Everything worked for Notre Dame, including a small lineup that allowed them to chase Duke shooters better and then open the floor on the offensive end and let Atkins (19 points, 11 assists) mince the defense. On a trio of key late possessions, the senior fed Connaughton for a dunk on a backdoor feed, drove for his own score and then found Garrick Sherman in the post for a bucket.
“Our lineup was very hard to guard,” Brey said. “We had that floor spread and we really moved without the ball and got great stuff at the end of the clock.”
They handed Brey the game ball in the locker room afterward, acknowledging the first former Krzyzewski assistant to beat the master, ever. But that was a sideshow.
The end Saturday might have been the beginning for Notre Dame, left for dead after the Ohio State loss and Jerian Grant’s departure and Cam Biedscheid’s transfer. It was a repeat of reinvention in a way, recalling a 2012 upset of unbeaten, No. 1 Syracuse in this building, though that team had the relative luxury of months to adjust to the loss of a lodestar scorer in Tim Abromaitis. These Irish now flesh out an identity one DNA strand at a time, and forgive Brey if he doesn’t know who will contribute what on Tuesday night against North Carolina State.
“We’re just motivated by focusing one game at a time and really accepting the challenge of being in the ACC and showing everybody, look, you’re not going to forget about us come the end of the season,” Connaughton said.
Or, as Atkins put it: “I think it gives us a lot of life.”
A good while after the win, Connaughton laughed courtside with his family and signed autographs for two young fans, wishing them safe travels as they walked away. A few minutes later, Atkins dropped by, the team's two remaining veteran voices who must reach through the chaos and hold the thing together finding temporary relief in a debate about whether the 6-foot-2 Atkins can dunk. Atkins shook the hand of Connaughton’s father, absorbed some congratulations, and shook his head. He exhaled. As they stood there, by pure accident, Atkins’ feet were the only ones inside the lines on the Purcell Pavilion hardwood. No one on the floor, then, except the guy who expected Notre Dame to win.