NC State escapes Notre Dame in one of Mike Brey’s final trips to the ACC heartland
Might as well call it Neo Carolina State the way the Wolfpack has been dodging bullets lately. First, there was Terquavion Smith somehow emerging unscathed from that frightening fall and showing up for the next game some 72 hours later like it almost never happened.
Then there was Tuesday’s win over Notre Dame, in which N.C. State first struggled against the Irish zone and then plowed through it, going small around D.J. Burns to break it down. The Irish may be 1-9 in the ACC, but they didn’t make it easy, and it took everything the Wolfpack had to put away an 85-82 win.
Disaster averted. Disaster averted. Not a bad Tuesday, as these things go.
But it was also Mike Brey’s first visit to the Triangle since he announced he would retire after the season, and while that may no longer be home for the longtime Notre Dame coach, it’s never been far from his heart. He grew up an ACC fan in Maryland, spent eight years as an assistant at Duke and found himself back in the league when the Irish jumped from the Big East in 2013.
Not only the league’s quote laureate, the best drummer among active coaches and foremost avatar of the stockbroker-at-Happy Hour look back before COVID, when coaches still wore suits — shirt half-untucked, two days of stubble — Brey always understood the ACC deep in his soul, perhaps better than anyone in South Bend ever will.
When he won his ACC title, beating UNC and Duke in Greensboro in 2015, he offered celebratory readings from the book of Lefty Driesell. He can still, some 28 years later, quote a one-liner by the late N&O columnist Caulton Tudor. (In 1995, as Duke foundered without Mike Krzyzewski, Tudor wrote that assistants Brey and Tommy Amaker went from “hot and hotter to dumb and dumber.” Brey left for Delaware that summer. Amaker stayed for another two years, then took the Seton Hall job.)
There was never any doubt about Brey’s bona fides, which only underlines how much he’ll be missed around these parts. That made Tuesday a bit of an impromptu farewell, with ACC commissioner Jim Phillips — Brey’s first sport administrator at Notre Dame, back in 2000 — sitting on the baseline and N.C. State athletic director Boo Corrigan waiting at the end of the handshake line to give Brey a hug, not normally the kind of courtesy extended to an opposing coach.
Brey will make one last visit to Duke in February and Notre Dame’s season — and his career — are almost certain to end in Greensboro in March, but his team nearly assured him one last win in North Carolina before it was over. That’s the way it’s been for Notre Dame this season, a promising, veteran group that just hasn’t been able to get over the hump.
Maybe that’s why, when Brey heard that Smith was so quickly out of the hospital on Saturday, he just assumed Smith would play. Smith wasn’t the difference Tuesday — he started 0-for-7 and 11 of his 17 points came at the free-throw line – but he didn’t hurt, either.
“It was a heck of a fall,” Brey said. “Of course, he didn’t make as many or maybe we wouldn’t have a chance. But he’s so gifted and their group plays well together, they really do.”
It’s just been that kind of year, where the Irish can’t catch a break and its coach eventually came to the realization that it was time to move on. A cushy television gig awaits, if he wants it.
In the wake of last week’s decision, N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts texted Brey some kind words, as the news broke, and said Brey replied that he would see him Tuesday and joked he “might be drunk at the game.” That was Keatts’ first question when they shared a moment in the handshake line after the game, whether Brey was. (He wasn’t.)
“I usually don’t share texts,” Keatts said, “but he’s so cool.”
Keatts also told a story about his days as a Louisville assistant, when the Cardinals went five overtimes with Notre Dame in South Bend with College GameDay on site in February 2013.
“We’re over there going crazy, we’re pissed off that it’s going to overtime, and Mike Brey is looking down at us laughing his ass off,” Keatts said.
Brey got the last laugh that night but Louisville did that season, beating Notre Dame twice more on its way to a (vacated) national title. Tuesday night, after Keatts’ Wolfpack escaped and Brey could only throw up his hands, they were both laughing when it was over.
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