NEW YORK -- You never expect an ACC championship game to lay an egg, and this didn’t. Duke beat Notre Dame 75-69, a score that in no way reflects how tight this was. The Irish led by eight with 11 minutes remaining and were within two with 32.1 seconds to play, whereupon the Golden Domers thought they’d gotten the break they needed.
Matt Jones, who moments earlier had hit a 3-pointer off Jayson Tatum’s feed to put Duke ahead 71-67, was inbounding after V.J. Beachem’s driving basket. Jones ran along the baseline, as was his right. The Notre Dame bench was sure he exceeded his boundaries, however.
“I thought he did. I thought he stepped on the end line,” coach Mike Brey said. “I don’t know if there was a replay – a lot of commotion at that time. We certainly could have used some help there.”
The story of this tournament was Duke’s rise from its improbable No. 5 seed – it was ranked No. 1 nationally in preseason – to its first ACC title since 2011, which by Blue Devil standards is a massive drought. Duke became the first team to win four games in an ACC tournament, which is a big deal, and finished by beating Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame in the span of 50 hours, which should be astonishing but isn’t.
Because Duke, see, is the nation’s most gifted team. It has endured injuries to three gifted freshman and the absence of Mike Krzyzewski after back surgery and the ongoing psychodrama of Grayson Allen to become what we expected it to be. Owing to its eight losses, the Devils won’t be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. They might well win it, though.
As for the story of the game: That was largely Notre Dame, doing as Notre Dame has come to do. You’ll recall the Irish upsetting Duke, which would win the national championship, and taking unbeaten Kentucky to the wire in a regional final in 2015. You’ll recall them giving North Carolina, which should have won the national championships, in a region final last year. Now this.
The Irish pushed Duke to the limit by spreading the floor and running their offense, which Brey said has “not much structure – we just kind of ball; we just kind of play.” But Notre Dame has a clear idea of what it can’t do and what it can, and it plays closer to its capacity than any team in the land.
Trouble was, the Irish have little in the way of depth, and they were playing their third game in three nights. They missed 19 of 25 3-point shots, and still they nearly toppled a team with Luke Kennard, who was named tournament MVP, and Jayson Tatum, who should have been named MVP. Put it this way: Had you known that Duke would make 60.8 percent of its shots to Notre Dame’s 40.3, you’d have thought, “Duke by 15.” But no.
Brey: “We needed a couple of those (3-pointers) to go down to escape … We needed to make a few more of those open looks to beat those guys.”
Still, Brey got the final where he wanted it – down to “game situations,” as he likes to say. (He borrowed that term from Krzyzewski, his former boss.) Notre Dame was within a point with a minute remaining, whereupon Brey told point guard Matt Farrell to stop shadowing a Dukie who had yet to score.
“The Matt Jones 3 is on me,” Brey said. “I told Matt Farrell, ‘We’ve got to run at him.’ (Meaning Tatum, who’d scored Duke’s five previous points.) To his credit, he made a great pass.”
Tatum is a freshman. (Brey: “If he’s not the ‘1’ pick, I’ve got to see the guy who’s the ‘1’ pick.”) When Farrell ran at him – a double-teaming maneuver designed to make Tatum do exactly what he did, meaning cede the ball – it was sound strategy. But Tatum found the open man, who made his only basket of the night. That’s basketball.
Tatum was tremendous all tournament. He finished the championship game with 19 points on 11 shots, plus eight rebounds and one massive assist. His runout basket and 3-point play with 25.4 seconds remaining -- after the no-call on Jones and a Notre Dame foul, Duke ran a lovely inbounds play -- was the clincher. But here’s how good this game was: Tatum’s performance was only No. 2 on the night.
Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson, the 6-foot-5 Irish center, scored 29 points on 14 shots, taking nine rebounds. He did this while playing 38 minutes, the last few after turning his ankle.
Said Brey: “It’s one of the great performances in championship game history. Our fans don’t know a lot about the ACC tournament, but it was one of the great performances.”
It was. It was, as ever, a splendid tournament, and the next tournament could be even more blissful for the ACC. Duke can win it all. Carolina can win it all. Notre Dame could reach the Final Four. Louisville could reach the Final Four. (And don’t sleep on Miami.)
Sometimes the ACC’s opinion of itself can seem high-falutin’, but the level of play in this tournament – and last year’s Big Dance, and the 2015 Final Four, and on and on throughout the history of the sport – was so surpassing that you can’t say the league doesn’t walk the walk. Be it in Greensboro or Brooklyn, nobody does conference tournaments like the ACC. Nobody ever has. Nobody ever will.
"Thanks to everyone here at the Barclays Center," Krzyzewski said. "The tournament was great here."
Then, with a sly nod to the theme of the week: "As it has been in every location."