With 1.4 seconds on the clock, Roy Williams called a timeout as Joel Berry reached the midcourt line with his team trailing 71-70. The 12th-year UNC head coach called two plays in the huddle – one for a zone look, one for man – both with the intent of getting the ball at the rim.
The play UNC ultimately ran is called “short winner,” which sets a double screen for Marcus Paige at the top of the key with the first screener slipping to the basket for a play at the rim. J.P. Tokoto inbounded the ball and found Paige looping around the arc with Fighting Irish defense in close proximity.
Paige’s contested three from the left wing missed its mark, saddling the Tar Heels with their first ACC loss of the season.
Junior forward Brice Johnson told reporters the team worked on that particular inbounds play 2-3 times per practice.
“We’d like to get the ball at the rim,” Paige said after the loss. “It’s a lot easier to make a layup than it is a contest three, but at the same time, you don’t have a lot of options with 1.5 seconds left on the clock. They got the ball in my hands and the defense did a good job of reading it and anticipating where I was headed.”
Williams said he didn’t think his team executed that final play properly, although he added that he would need to watch it on film to be sure.
“We had a timeout at the end and I thought about taking it, but I saw Marcus,” Tokoto said. “I saw him open for a split second, made a choice and ended up with three guys on him. It’s just kind of the way things go. You wish you had the play back.”
While that play was critiqued in the postgame setting due to its finality, UNC had rallied to put itself in position to win after Notre Dame shot 55.6 percent in building a 57-46 lead with 13:08 to play.
Williams made the necessary defensive adjustments to cool down Notre Dame’s hot shooting in the second half. After attempting – and failing – to defend the Irish’s pick-and-roll in the first half by working under the ball screen, UNC switched back to its traditional approach of hedging off the screen and allowing its guard to work over the screen.
Combine that adjustment with a small lineup that included J.P. Tokoto and Justin Jackson playing at the four spot and the Tar Heels were able to hold Notre Dame to 1-of-9 shooting over the final 10:12.
UNC, however, missed all eight of its field goal attempts in the final three minutes of play, relying on a pair of Kennedy Meeks free throws to take the lead at 70-69 with 2:07 to play.
“It’s tough when you’re clawing back and it’s a one possession game, every stop is so hard to get that you have to convert a couple of those when you do get a stop,” Paige said. “And we couldn’t get a basket to go in.”
UNC held a 21-6 edge on the offensive glass, but with 1:08 to play, Zach Auguste grabbed the most important one of the night, scoring the putback to finalize the scoring on what Williams described as “the biggest play of the game.”
Paige missed a pair of 3-pointers on the next possession, bookending a Tokoto attempt, and then the junior guard missed a driving attempt across the lane on UNC’s penultimate possession with nine seconds to play.
Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia failed to convert either of his free throw attempts with 4.6 seconds left, giving the Tar Heels one last opportunity with “short winner,” a play designed to take advantage of opposing defense’s focus on Paige.
Paige dismissed the notion that UNC’s offense deferred to him in the final minutes.
“We got into a couple of late-clock situations where I had to take a tough shot, but on several of those other occasions, we got the ball into the paint, point blank, whether it was my drive or getting the ball to Kennedy,” said Paige, who has been nursing a foot injury of late. “We just didn’t convert. If you can get the ball two or three feet away from the basket, at that point it comes down to being tough enough to finish the play.”
As Williams put it, his team had some good looks, but just didn’t make enough of them. There will likely be more opportunities in this lengthy ACC schedule.
“This is the ACC; we’ve got a lot of good teams and it’s going to come down to that more than once, more than this game,” freshman wing Theo Pinson said. “We’ve just got to make the shots.”
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