Blowout loss to North Carolina fuels Notre Dame -- just not how you think

PHILADELPHIA -- Mike Brey was walking through the J.W. Marriott in Washington D.C. two Saturday mornings ago, bright-eyed and chipper, not at all like a coach whose team had been run over by a bulldozer the night before.

"What are you going to do?" the Notre Dame coach said after North Carolina pasted his team by 31 points in the ACC tournament semifinal. "They were terrific and we weren’t ourselves, but at least tomorrow we know we’re going to get an [NCAA tournament] bid."

There will be no tomorrows for the Irish if, in their Elite Eight matchup on Sunday night, they play the Tar Heels like they did on March 11. That game essentially was over by halftime, a 25-22 North Carolina edge turning into a 47-22 annihilation in about nine minutes.

Brey joked that he misplaced the game tape from that one. Those are the films that generally end up as the kindling for a really nice cleansing bonfire. But misplacing the tape doesn’t mean the coach hasn’t referenced it. It’s just not as people think.

Revenge is a nice narrative, but there is no need to conjure up motivation here. The Irish haven’t been to the Final Four since 1978 -- as former coach Digger Phelps loves to remind Brey -- and their most recent opportunity was cut short in an epic Elite Eight battle against Kentucky a year ago.

As even North Carolina’s Marcus Paige noted, "This game is to go to the Final Four. I don’t care what happened in the past, and I’m sure they don’t, either."

No, they don’t.

Instead when the Irish do reference that game, it is as a jumping off point to show who they were and who they’ve become. The Notre Dame team that headed to D.C. for the ACC tournament had lost three of its last five in the regular season, unable to close out against Georgia Tech, run over by Florida State, and toppled by Miami.

If this wasn’t a team quite in the fetal position, it was one at least lying prone on the floor.

In its first ACC tournament game, Notre Dame showed a glimpse of its rebirth -- rallying from 16 down to win in overtime versus Duke -- but then came the North Carolina bulldozer. The game was an unmitigated disaster, with an Irish team that prided itself on taking care of the ball coughing it up 17 times.

Brey has made a subtle shift since then, inserting Matt Farrell into the starting lineup. The sophomore guard has given the Irish another ball handler, easing some of the pressure off of Demetrius Jackson. In its three NCAA tournament games, the same team that couldn’t hold on to the ball against Carolina has turned it over an average of nine times per game.

The change is more than statistical. There’s a new attitude now, one that’s been brewing all season but needed some real results to percolate.

"We feel like no matter what, backs against the wall, we’re going to find a way out," V.J. Beachem said.

To his point, the team that couldn’t find a way to win at the end of the season now can’t lose -- sometimes despite itself. The Irish have come back in each of their three NCAA tournament games, winning despite being 12 down against Michigan, on an improbable tip-in against Stephen F. Austin, and via a last-minute flurry of defense turned into offense that still has Wisconsin fans scratching their heads.

The Irish certainly haven’t faced an opponent like North Carolina in this tournament. While Notre Dame has been life and death to make it to the regional final, the Tar Heels have won by an average of 16.6 points per game.

Unlike the Irish, they might want to play that game film from the ACC tournament on a loop.

Feel free, say the Irish.

What they’re counting on won’t show up on the tape.

"It’s not all about X’s and O’s," Jackson said. “They know our plays, we know theirs. It’s going to come down to who plays harder."