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McGRATH: Irish show they belong in big league

Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins drives lane against Duke second half an NCAA college basketball game Saturday Jan. 4 2014

Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins drives the lane against Duke in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, in South Bend, Ind. Notre Dame defeated Duke 79-77. Atkins led the Irish scoring 19 points. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)

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Updated: February 6, 2014 6:49AM

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — ACC basketball? Big deal.

That was Notre Dame’s approach to Saturday’s debut in a new league that has long been considered college basketball aristocracy. The blue-blooded Blue Devils of Duke for an opening-day opponent? So much the better.

The Irish had no chance comparing pedigrees with haughty Duke, whose roster is rife with high school All-Americans. So they resorted to such old-school intangibles as hustle, ball movement and floorburn-inducing grit in stealing a 79-77 victory before 9,149 disbelieving but delighted spectators at Purcell Pavilion.

Irish coach Mike Brey got his start in college ball as an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski and was at his side for two national titles and six Final Four trips in eight seasons. They’d met as head coaches only once before, Duke beating the Irish by eight in the second round of the 2002 NCAA tournament.

The score is now even, thanks in large part to a 39-30 rebounding edge that reflected Notre Dame’s want-to.

“I’m really proud of our guys,” Brey said. “This shows the character we have, the leadership.”

ACC opponents take notice: Notre Dame went into its conference debut short-handed. Brey is renowned for tailoring his approach to his personnel, but Jerian Grant’s recent academic disqualification and Cameron Biedscheid’s ill-advised decision to transfer presumably left the Irish short of weapons.

They could (and did) improvise and hold their own in the black-and-blue Big East, but open-court flair and above-the-rim artistry are ACC essentials.

Except when they aren’t.

While the Blue Devils hoisted 28 of their 58 shots from three-point range, Notre Dame exposed Duke’s lack of an inside presence by pounding the ball to Garrick Sherman (14 points, eight rebounds) or sending guard Eric Atkins on fearless drives to the basket. Pat Connaughton contributed 16 points and eight rebounds, matching his two three-pointers with two rim-rattling dunks he created by sneaking free along the baseline.

“Pat Connaughton gave a clinic in how to move without the ball,” Brey said.

Atkins grew up in Columbia, Md. — ACC country — and has been competing with and against ACC players all his life. Intimidated? The spindly 6-2 senior was the best player on the floor with 19 points, 11 assists and only two turnovers in 38 minutes, a cool hand with the ball when Duke tried to close the gap with late-game pressure.

“Eric was terrific,” Brey said. “We lost a tough one to Ohio State, we lost Jerian, we were all a little down, but Eric said, ‘Coach, we’ll be all right.’ He’s been a leader in a crisis situation.’’

Duke freshman Jabari Parker finished with seven points on 2-for-10 shooting and occupied a seat on the bench at the end.

“He wasn’t playing well,” Krzyzewski said. “That happens. He just wasn’t having a good game.”

Notre Dame wouldn’t know about that. On this day, the Irish played a very good one.

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