GREENSBORO, N.C. – Notre Dame already gave one big lead away at the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament and just about did it again.
Because the 11th-ranked Fighting Irish held on, they’ll finally play for a league championship.
Notre Dame earned its first berth in a conference title game by beating No. 2 Duke 74-64 on Friday night in an ACC semifinal.
Bonzie Colson scored 17 points and Demetrius Jackson added 15 points and Jerian Grant had 13 for the third-seeded Fighting Irish (28-5). They shot 50 percent, led by 17 and held off the Blue Devils’ comeback attempt to beat them for the second time this season.
They reached the Big East semifinals six times, including in each of their last four years in the league, and lost them all.
“One of the things I used to say all the time when we were in the Big East, ‘Let’s get to Saturday,'” coach Mike Brey said. “Darn if we’re not playing for it … and I’ve never been more confident of a group.”
Notre Dame will face No. 19 North Carolina, the tournament’s fifth seed, on Saturday night in the title game and Brey said “there would be no greater achievement in the history of our program” than winning that.
Jahlil Okafor had 28 points on 13-of-18 shooting for the second-seeded but slow-starting Blue Devils (29-4), who had their 12-game winning streak snapped by the last team to beat them. Notre Dame won 77-73 on Jan. 28.
“Really, for about the first 24 minutes, I’m not sure – I don’t know who we were coaching tonight,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We weren’t talking, we weren’t doing anything. We weren’t following instructions. It was like an out-of-body experience.”
Tyus Jones pulled Duke to 68-64 with a 3-pointer with about 3 minutes left.
The Blue Devils didn’t score again.
Okafor turned it over before he missed two free throws, and Pat Connaughton knocked down a big jumper with about 1:15 left and the shot clock winding down to put Notre Dame up by six.
Jackson then stole the ball from Quinn Cook with around a minute left before missing a 3. Cook’s last-gasp 3 with about 30 seconds left hit off the back iron and Grant and Colson iced it with free throws in the final 30 seconds.
For much of the second half, though, it seemed as if Duke would find a way to pull off one of the biggest comebacks in ACC Tournament history.
Notre Dame, which led 41-26 at halftime, was playing 24 hours after giving back all of an 18-point lead against Miami before recovering to advance to another league semifinal.
It sure looked like another collapse was coming when Duke made its big move down the stretch.
Okafor hit a jumper and Justise Winslow went coast to coast for a layup that made it a seven-point game with 5 minutes left. Notre Dame’s top interior defender – Zach Auguste – fouled out.
Okafor then pulled Duke to 66-61 with a layup at the 4-minute mark. After Grant hit two free throws, Jones buried his 3 – just Duke’s third of the night – with a hand in his face to make it a four-point game.
“We’ve been through it. We’ve experienced that a number of times this season,” Jackson said. “I think we did a great job of recovering from those runs and staying together and having each other’s backs.”
This was just the fourth time in the tournament’s history that both of the top seeds were knocked out in the semifinals. The last time it happened was 1990, when third-seeded Georgia Tech faced sixth-seeded Virginia in the title game.
The only team in ACC Tournament history to win after trailing by 15 or more at the half is no longer in the league. Maryland owns the biggest rally after coming back from 19 down to beat North Carolina State in a 2004 semifinal. The deepest ACC Tournament halftime deficit overcome by Duke is seven against Boston College in the 2009 quarterfinals.
Notre Dame: Brey – the only former Mike Krzyzewski assistant coach to beat his old boss – improved to 3-3 against him.
Duke: The Blue Devils had 26 points in the first half, matching their season low for any half.
Notre Dame: Plays No. 19 North Carolina on Saturday night in the ACC championship game.
Duke: NCAA Tournament.
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