Notre Dame has its way with ACC hierarchy again

Notre Dame celebrates (3:36)

Rece Davis and Jay Bilas discuss the tough-minded plays that lead the Irish past North Carolina. (3:36)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Mike Brey was answering a question about 3-pointers -- or in this case, the lack thereof -- when he delivered an addendum, one that might be a little more obvious now that a primetime audience witnessed all that he and his Notre Dame program have been doing the past two seasons.

“Our program, when we’ve been under the bright lights on the big stage, we have flat-out delivered. Flat. Out. Delivered,” the 16th-year Fighting Irish coach said.

An 80-76 win over No. 2 North Carolina isn’t supposed to happen around these parts, at least not when the Fighting Irish shoot the way they did in the first half Saturday.

It isn’t supposed to happen when the visiting team boasts six regulars who stand 6-foot-8 or taller, to three for the home team. And a win over the ACC bluebloods from Chapel Hill certainly isn’t supposed to be a regular occurrence, especially not when the Irish said goodbye to a pair of NBA draft picks last season.

And yet there Brey sat in his news conference -- confetti, stray water bottles and yet another fallen group of Tar Heels in his wake -- talking about the students who stormed the court, about the sold-out, “gold-out” atmosphere and about the increasingly obvious reality that these guys are major ACC players now after a debut season gone haywire in 2014.

Notre Dame is 6-1 in its past seven games against the Tobacco Road hierarchy of North Carolina and Duke. The Irish have won four straight against them dating to last season. They have won their past three now against the Tar Heels -- including a win in the ACC tournament title game last year.

That program-defining victory had come on the backs of an outrageous second-half shooting performance.

This one? It couldn’t have been any different, UNC’s early 15-point lead notwithstanding.

It was Brey, the coach of the nation’s most efficient offense (per Pomeroy’s Adjusted Index), calling his front line of Zach Auguste (15 points, 10 rebounds) and Bonzie Colson (19 and 10) “men.”

It was Roy Williams, the coach of the team that entered the day alone atop the ACC, questioning his guys’ intensity, this after a second straight loss dropped them to a tie with Louisville at 8-2 in league play.

“I’ve got a bunch of wonderful kids, but we have to decide that we want to compete when it’s tough, not just when it’s easy,” Williams said.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the Heels; they did see the resurgence of Marcus Paige's shooting touch. Paige, who entered the night amidst a tumultuous seven-game stretch that saw him shoot less than 50 percent in each game, finished with a game-high 21 points off 7-of-12 shooting (5-of-8 from 3); no small consolation for a guy who hadn’t made more than half his shots in a game since Jan. 2.

More perplexing, however, was UNC being unable to run away from an Irish team that shot just 28.1 percent from the field in the first half, a team that failed to hit a trey until nearly six minutes into the second half.

No sweat, said Brey.

“I have not hung my hat on our 3s as much anymore,” he said. “We’ve done it a little differently, and we’ve done tough stuff and going to the basket. ... I love that we got 20 offensive rebounds. That’s front-line guys just fighting and clawing and scratching.”

UNC might have narrowly held the overall rebounding edge (41-40), but the Irish did more with less, grabbing 20 offensive boards to the Heels’ 15 and scoring 23 second-chance points to the visitors’ 13.

A 13-2 edge in turnovers kept the Irish afloat despite myriad chances for the Tar Heels to put them away, and the home team was all too happy to pounce on the opportunity late.

“Shots are gonna fall -- sometimes they don’t, sometimes they do,” Auguste said. “But we’ve got to be able to play defense for 40 minutes and be able to rely on that and know our shots will eventually fall.”

They did -- to an extent. Notre Dame shot 41.2 percent in the second half, but were at a 27.3 percent clip from beyond the arc. The Irish’s final tally -- a 34.8 percent shooting percentage -- was their worst of the season.

Few embodied the beautiful struggle better than point guard Demetrius Jackson, who missed all five 3-point tries but finished tied for a team-high with 19 points. He hauled in four of his six boards on the offensive glass and sank all nine of his free throws as well.

Jackson took one glance at the box score and immediately recognized the most absurd stat on a night filled with them.

“We shot our lowest field-goal percentage [of the season], but we did some other really great things,” he said. “Turned the ball over only two times, 10 steals -- we just made game-winning plays, and just had that mental toughness and the will to win.”

A will that’s becoming increasingly obvious to the league’s landlords on Tobacco Road.