Heels Fall in ACCT Championship

GREENSBORO, N.C. – No. 5 seed North Carolina was in control of Saturday’s ACC Tournament championship game until it wasn’t. The Tar Heels built a nine-point second-half lead and then watched it turn into a 14-point deficit over a seven-minute span.

15:05 to play, UNC leading 48-41

Marcus Paige’s second 3-pointer of the second half ignited a Greensboro Coliseum crowd that rivaled the best the Smith Center has offered this season, capping a 14-2 UNC run out of halftime. The Tar Heels scored eight of those points in the paint, boosting its advantage in that category to 16-5 over the smaller Fighting Irish. The other six came courtesy of Paige’s long-range exploits.

UNC blended its inside-out approach during the opening five minutes of the half while forcing Notre Dame into five missed shots and a pair of turnovers. The Tar Heels were dialed in, their fan base was feeling good and the media scribes in attendance were prepping their stories.

9:58 to play, UNC leading 63-54

The Tar Heels increased their lead despite their opponents shaking their slow start and finding a rhythm offensively. Notre Dame had scored on seven straight possessions, but UNC answered each score. The teams combined for 28 points in a little more than five minutes of play.

The troubling aspect for the Tar Heels was that the Fighting Irish were known for offensive outbursts. That’s been their thing all season long.

UNC wing Justin Jackson told reporters that Notre Dame was attacking the basket at a higher rate than it did in the first meeting in January.

“You’ve got to be aware that they are going to set ball screens, they’re going to drive and their players can knock down open shots,” sophomore forward Isaiah Hicks said following UNC's 90-82 loss. “It’s tough. You basically have limited help on the drive, and then if there’s no help, it’s a layup. It’s just a tough offense to go against.”

7:52 to play, Notre Dame leading 67-64

The Fighting Irish’s run was as lethal as it was unrelenting. In a span of 68 seconds, Demtrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia and Pat Connaughton all connected on 3-pointers. Add in Vasturia’s steal and layup in transition and Notre Dame had erased an eight-point deficit in a flurry.

Vasturia’s 3-pointer during that stretch highlighted Notre Dame’s quality ball movement around the horn. Standing on the left wing, Jerian Grant swung the ball to Connaughton, who passed to Jackson, who found Vasturia open in the right corner for the wide open 3-pointer. All in a span of three seconds, and all with each shooter squaring up to fire away if UNC’s defensive rotation had been poor.

“They just took control,” Hicks said, ”and we let them. They were just on a roll and we couldn’t do anything about it.”

2:54 to play, Notre Dame leading 80-66

Connaughton’s 20th point came on a dunk on Grant’s 10th assist. The 24-2 run was complete, and the Coliseum crowd that had been so boisterous 20 minutes earlier was quiet.

Connaughton’s dunk marked Notre Dame’s 39th point in 19 possessions, which was good for a 2.05 points-per-possession average. While UNC was able to match Notre Dame’s efficiency during the initial stages of the championship run, it fell apart of the last six minutes of the assault.

The Tar Heels committed six turnovers in a 10-possession stretch as the Fighting Irish scored at will on the other end of the court.

“When you sense a team going on a run and making a couple of shots,” Paige said, “we always talk about that is the extra important time to value the basketball and run some offense and make them guard for a little bit because that takes them out of their rhythm offensively.

“But I think during that time I took a quick shot and we had a couple turnovers back to back right out of half court, and that is going to lead to run outs and easy baskets or open three pointers for them. So we did the exact opposite of what we talked about in that situation.”

In the first meeting between these teams, UNC fell behind by 11 early in the second half, forcing UNC head coach Roy Williams to switch to a small lineup with either Tokoto or Jackson at the 4-spot over the final 10:12. The Tar Heels regained the lead briefly before Notre Dame scored the game winner on a putback with 1:07 to play.

On Saturday, Williams decided to go small when Kennedy Meeks picked up his fourth foul with 6:15 to play and his team trailing by seven. The strategy failed to produce the same effect as the first time.

“It's a tough match up for us,” Williams said. “We tried to go small the last part of the game to see if we could do a better job of guarding them, but they made some really good plays.”

If fatigue set in, neither Williams nor his Tar Heels would admit to it after the game.

“They beat our butts,” Williams said. “That is the bottom line. They played better than we did and they had a tremendous stretch there that they should be congratulated for.”

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