No one would have expected Notre Dame‘s much-maligned defense to be the deciding factor in a positive way on Saturday afternoon against the Duke Blue Devils in South Bend, Ind. But in the final moments, the Fighting Irish stood tall on defense, turned Duke over and Notre Dame scored an upset on the first major day of ACC play, beating Duke 79-77.
Notre Dame has at times this season treated defense as completely optional. The Fighting Irish gave up 98 points in a loss at Iowa earlier this year, and most probably expected the Blue Devils, led by freshman standout Jabari Parker, to stroll into South Bend and get a win.
But Parker was held to 2-for-10 shooting and just seven points. Rodney Hood (27 points) and Quincy Cook (22 points) picked up the slack for the Blue Devils (11-3, 0-1 ACC), but Notre Dame held Duke to just 41 percent shooting from the field. And while the Blue Devils turned the ball over just six times, the Fighting Irish came up with the biggest turnover of the contest when Demetrius Jackson stripped the ball away from Hood in the post with Duke down two points.
Jackson then came up big at the other end, hitting a pair of free throws that gave Notre Dame (10-4, 1-0) a four-point lead with just nine seconds left. While Duke did give up a desperation half-court shot at the buzzer, it wasn’t close to going in and the defense (defense!) had led Notre Dame to a huge conference victory. Guard Eric Atkins led the Fighting Irish with 19 points.
There is no way to tell if Saturday’s win is the turning of a new leaf for the Fighting Irish, who did give up at least 75 points for the fifth time this season. But when it counted, Notre Dame finally made a stand. That’s something the Fighting Irish are going to have to do night-in, night-out, in the super-tough, 15-team ACC.
Even if today’s clutch defensive effort isn’t a sign of what’s to come in the league for Notre Dame, it’s a win over Duke that the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will love, and that shows how it’s now probably even harder to win on the road in the conference than it was before the Fighting Irish, Pittsburgh and Syracuse joined prior to this season.