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Special to theACC.com by ACCDN Guest Reporter Jacob Dennis
Two national powerhouses were upset Friday night in Greensboro, as both Notre Dame and North Carolina won their semifinal games in convincing fashion. The matchup between the Irish and the Heels Saturday night in the conference title game is unexpected to say the least, as one of the ACC’s most decorated teams meets one of the conference’s newest members. No fifth seed, which Carolina is in 2015, has ever won the ACC Tournament crown. Notre Dame is attempting a “first” of its own, as the Fighting Irish have never won, or even played in, a conference tournament title game. One thing is for sure: when the Irish and Heels clash for the title of ACC Champion, something’s gotta give.
When the Fighting Irish and Tar Heels take the court Saturday night, the teams will play arguably the most unique title matchup in conference history. North Carolina will be playing in the ACC Tournament championship game for an unprecedented 33rd time, while Notre Dame will make its tournament championship debut. The Irish never made the Big East title game, but have reached the ACC final in just their second year as a league member. This fact points to the captivating quality of March Madness: for one month, the improbable becomes a normality.
Just how improbable has North Carolina’s run to the championship game been? The Heels are just the fourth team in history to play four games in the ACC Tournament, joining the likes of NC State (1997, 2007) and Georgia Tech (2010). Neither State nor Tech won their fourth game in the tournament.
North Carolina has also had an improbable leader this week in Greensboro. The country has become accustomed to names like Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson leading the Heels, but freshman Justin Jackson has taken over that role for the week. The 6’8” forward from Tomball, Texas, poured in a career-high 22 points in the Tar Heels’ upset win over Virginia, negating Malcolm Brogdon’s monster second half performance. Jackson has scored in double figures in Carolina’s three tournament games to this point, averaging 14.7 points per game, nearly five points above his regular season average.
The tournament heroics have come from an unexpected source for the Fighting Irish as well. Notre Dame’s guards ultimately propelled Mike Brey’s squad past Duke, but Jerian Grant wasn’t the team’s leading scorer. Demetrius Jackson had a terrific game, but he didn’t have the most points, either. That distinction was earned by Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame’s freshman bench player. Colson doesn’t start for the Irish, and he didn’t even have a point in the team’s narrow quarterfinal win over Miami. Colson entered the tournament averaging less than six points per game, but he scored 17 points (7-8 FT) against Duke.
Jackson and Colson have continued the trend of terrific freshmen play this week at the ACC Tournament, while also proving that, to beat teams of Duke and Virginia’s caliber, an unexpected source must step his game up. That is, undoubtedly, what Jackson and Colson did on semifinal Friday.
The fact that North Carolina and Notre Dame are playing for a championship in Greensboro, while names like Duke and Virginia didn’t stay as long as expected, points to a fact that no other league can claim: the ACC has four teams capable of making the Final Four. Regardless of which team wins Saturday, history will be made as the college basketball world watches perhaps the most unique ACC Championship matchup ever.