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The story of the Irish duo that helped pull off a famous college basketball victory

How Michael Bree and Conor Grace contributed to Davidson College’s shock win over North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Conor Grace pictured playing for Hibernia in 2015.
Conor Grace pictured playing for Hibernia in 2015.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘Hoops Across The Ocean’ by Conor Meany.

For many basketball fans in America, college basketball was always the driving force of the game. While the NBA is great, for many the purity of the game truly lies in the ‘amateur’ game.

The appeal of college basketball has been diluted somewhat in recent years with the prevalence of one-and-done superstars, who are only playing in college simply because they can’t enter the NBA draft straight out of high school.

Back in 2001 though, the NCAA was still king and college basketball was at the heart of the American sport.

If NCAA basketball, in general, was big around the USA overall, it was ALL that mattered in some states, including North Carolina.

The Tar Heel State has long been the epicentre of the college basketball world, with the Atlantic Coast Conference considered by most the best basketball in the country.

Within the ACC, the rivalries of some of the most storied universities and coaches tend to have links to Tobacco Road. Duke University with Mike Krzyzewski, and North Carolina with Dean Smith, and later Roy Williams, not only held one of the fiercest local rivalries in any sport, but often the NCAA championship was within arm’s reach of one of the two schools each year.

It was in this environment that Ireland’s first-ever NCAA export John O’Donnell from Cork had thrived for North Carolina, paving the way for future alumni including none other than Michael Jordan himself.

The Dean Dome – home of North Carolina – was built in 1986. Named after John’s legendary coach, Dean Smith, it remains one of the most iconic basketball arenas in the world today.

The powder-blue floor markings are unmistakable, and there is something particularly magical about watching games there.

In 2001, Chapel Hill was graced by two more Irishmen as they went against the North Carolina Tar Heels with their Davidson Wildcats team in front of 14,705 fans.

Going into that remarkable game, Davidson’s Irish duo of Michael Bree and Conor Grace probably didn’t have a huge amount of hope.

The two men were at opposite ends of their college careers. Bree was starting his senior season after what had been a very impressive three years to that point, while Grace was about to play just his second-ever NCAA game.

Davidson had lost their season opener against Charlotte, so heading to Chapel Hill was likely low on the list of places Coach Bob McKillop wanted to go.

Davidson University is a small liberal arts university in North Carolina that has an excellent reputation as a mid-major basketball programme.

Located just 128 miles away from the Dean Dome, Davidson travelled the two-hour trip knowing that history was against them.

Since 1949, the two teams had played 13 times, with Davidson only winning once back in a 1952 home game.

The Wildcats had never travelled to Chapel Hill and won, and this was the task faced by a team led by a young Irish point guard from Sligo, Michael Bree.

For their part, North Carolina were about to start a difficult period under Coach Matt Doherty. Doherty was a former teammate of Jordan’s in North Carolina and had taken over the job in 2000. He was named the AP Coach of the Year in his first year with the Tar Heels as they claimed a share of the ACC regular-season title with Duke.

The second season was off to a rocky start though, as they had lost their first game. It would ultimately prove to be the beginning of a negative slide over the following two seasons that saw Doherty eventually replaced by Roy Williams.

As the game tipped, Davidson’s goal was just to mount pressure on the Tar Heels and stay in touching distance.

Coach Bob McKillop decided to play a zone defence, which was very rare for Davidson, and it worked.

Michael Bree was in the starting line-up, and he helped contribute three free throws and an assist in the early exchanges as Davidson went blow for blow with the Tar Heels.

Grace meanwhile was still searching for his first-ever win and he checked in to the game for 11 first-half minutes.

Both players did well as Davidson found themselves tied with the Tar Heels for large parts of the first half; things were going to plan.

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In the second half, McKillop leaned on his starters very hard, with Bree playing all 20 minutes of the second half and Grace providing two of the three total bench minutes.

With 90 seconds remaining, Davidson led 54–51, but a huge three-pointer by Jason Capel tied the game for the home team, and the game was now anyone’s to win.

With just 29 seconds to go, Davison retook the lead, 56–54, through a Chris Pearson dunk assisted by none other than Michael Bree.

A turnover by North Carolina and subsequent free throws sealed the deal as Davidson pulled off the huge upset and won in Chapel Hill for the first time.

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Bree helped lead the way with 6 points and 5 assists, while Conor Grace earned his first career win with 3 rebounds, an assist and a point.

Bree’s memory of a unique moment in time centred around the Tar Heel fans and a surreal moment for him as the crowd got behind the home team: ‘I was walking the ball up the floor in the second half, there must have been four or five minutes to go, and the game was tight. The fans had stood up and were shouting because the game was close, and the floor was shaking. I was dribbling the ball up the floor with no pressure, and I could feel the floor rocking underneath me! In my head, I was just thinking, “this is awesome!”’

Davidson’s coach Bob McKillop still smiles almost 20 years later as he recalls that game.

“We needed Conor to just start hitting people, and he did! I think he fouled out in 13 minutes. He fouled out quickly anyway! He was an enforcer.

“I grew up in New York and was a Knicks fan, and my father was a Boston Celtics fan. My father would have me watch the NBA game of the week, and the Celtics were always on in the sixties with Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinson, Bill Russell, Casey Jones, John Havlicek. So I knew the Celtics.

“Conor Grace was a guy the Celtics would want. Michael Bree was a guy the Celtics would want. They were the Cousy and the Heinson – that’s what they represented to me in our team. It came to fruition in that game against North Carolina.

“It required tremendous toughness, and that toughness was worn on the hearts of our team because it was worn on the hearts of Conor and Michael.”

The win’s significance for Davidson couldn’t be overstated by McKillop, who knew it played a large part in the future progress of his programme: ‘You have to understand what the history of North Carolina vs Davidson was.

“Back in the ’60s when Lefty Drissell was the great coach of Davidson, the school was Top 10, and North Carolina beat Davidson to get to the Final Four on two occasions.

“North Carolina had broken Davidson’s heart twice. For the army of alumni who had gone to Davidson College, that memory is embedded in their brain.

“For us to get that victory, it got rid of a lot of the demons for a lot of the alumni. And of course, the stature that North Carolina has as a blue blood programme, a consistent powerhouse, and for us to beat them!

“That was 18 years ago, when we were in the embryonic stages of development as a programme, as a culture, but that was a defining moment in our history.”

‘Hoops Across The Ocean’ is available for purchase here now: www.hoopsacrosstheocean.com.

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