The 2015 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament was a jammed-packed weekend full of shockers and surprises. The preeminent semifinals of ACC Tournament presented four powerhouse top-20 teams competing in two dramatic games. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish came to just their second ACC Tournament and and walked away with the Atlantic Coast Conference championship trophy, after beating out both shades of Tobacco Road blue.
Any avid college basketball aficionado would have difficulty finding a better final four in any conference semifinals than what the ACC offered on Friday. Duke and Virginia are two top five teams in the country, ranked second and third, respectively, in the current Associated Press Top 25 poll. Additionally, Notre Dame and North Carolina are hardly idle teams, coming in, respectively, at eleventh and nineteenth in the Associated Press Top 25.
On Friday, March 13th, the North Carolina Tar Heels squared off against the projected powerhouse of the tournament, the Virginia Cavaliers. These two teams have not met in the semifinals of the tournament since 1993 and the Tar Heels were ready for an upset. From the outset of the game, the Heels used their length and size to shut down the Hoos' offense. The boys in light blue started the game on a 12-3 run, but UVA finally decided to enter the coliseum and countered with a 9-1 run. The Heels played the first half looking as good as they have looked all season, boasting some hot three-point shooting, active defense, and headed into the locker room at the half with a seven point lead. The Hoos’, of course, came out for the second half attempting to turn things around, and in fact cut the lead to one. However, despite the late excitement, UNC freshman Justin Jackson scored a career-high 22 points to lead the Tar Heels to a well-fought victory over the top seed.
The finale of the semifinals presented the eleventh-ranked Fighting Irish busting out of the locker room ready for a double upset for the night over the second-ranked Duke Blue Devils. Notre Dame kicked off the thrilling game with a 18-5 run and immediate defensive intensity. The Irish were able to penetrate the paint and attack the rim with freshman forward Bonzie Colson surging right at Duke’s notorious big man, Jahlil Okafor. After dominating the entire first half, the Irish were sent to the locker room with a 15 point lead. However, unsurprisingly, Coach Krzyzewski’s players decided to show up in the second half and fed their ACC Player of the Year big man, Okafor, who finished the night with 28 points. But the freshman’s youth exhibited itself as he missed a few clutch free throws that could have made it a closer game down the stretch. Fighting Irish captain and experienced senior, Pat Connaughton, iced off the cake with an enormous jumper and vital free-throws to prevent a Tobacco Road shades of blue championship game.
Appearing in their first ACC championship game, Notre Dame took on the North Carolina Tar Heels in the finale on Saturday, March 14th. As the Greensboro Coliseum offered a sea of fans in Carolina blue, the Fighting Irish were certainly the underdogs for this one. The Irish played the Heels close throughout the entire first half and were able to run into the break riding a five-point lead. Carolina’s star guard, Marcus Paige, led the Heels out of the half with an instant three-pointer and helped them erase the deficit. Midway through the second half, Paige hit another clutch three and the Tar Heel crowd was roaring and the fans relaxed in their minds, thinking the they were aligned for another ACC trophy. The momentum switched as the Irish surged with a 24-2 late second half run, going from down seven to up by double-digits in an instant. All five Notre Dame starters were in double-digits, with seniors Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton combining for 44 points in the victory.
"There's been a special vibe about this group since we came to town Monday night," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said as his players cut down nets. "I felt great about tonight. I felt good about last night. And for us to do it, through Duke and Carolina, on Tobacco Road, it's just amazing." With this defeat and the trophy to boost, the Irish seem on course for a number three seed heading into the NCAA Tournament, but all four teams will wait for the announcement on Selection Sunday.