WASHINGTON – With his starting frontcourt in early foul trouble, Roy Williams elected to play small ball against Notre Dame and was rewarded with an 18-0 run to close the first half and cement North Carolina’s ACC-record 34th appearance in the ACC Tournament finals.
“We could make our travel plans at halftime,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said following his team’s 78-47 loss. “Let me put it that way. That's how tough it was.”
Five weeks ago in South Bend, the Fighting Irish (21-11) outworked the Tar Heels on the boards despite a size disadvantage in springing the upset. UNC (27-6) reversed course early on Friday, controlling the boards by a double-digit margin midway through the first half.
Notre Dame appeared to get the break it needed to stem its opponents’ momentum when Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks picked up their second fouls within 20 seconds of one another and the Tar Heels leading 23-20 with under seven minutes to play. On the Irish’s next play, Bonzie Colson rebounded his own miss for a putback that cut the deficit to one point.
After UNC responded with four quick points, Williams subbed in Theo Pinson for Joel James, leaving Isaiah Hicks as the lone big in the lineup. The Tar Heels proceeded to close the first half on an 18-0 run -- 14-0 with the small lineup on the floor, capped by Joel Berry's buzzer-beating 3-pointer – with a blend of defensive intensity and offensive precision that illustrated their potential.
Despite their All-American sitting on the bench, the Tar Heels managed to elevate their play, which speaks to the talent and versatility Williams has at his disposal.
“We have so many guys on this team that can play,” Pinson said. “It just showed today.”
UNC averaged 1.5 points per possession in that final 5:52, while Notre Dame committed five turnovers and missed four field goal attempts over its final nine possessions. The Irish managed 22 points on 34 first-half possessions.
“I thought defensively late in the first half we were really good,” Williams said.
The Tar Heels scored the first six points after halftime with their traditional lineup in place before Colson’s free throws with 16:38 to play ended the run. The final damage: a 24-0 spurt spanning nine minutes and 34 seconds.
“I think our small lineup worked,” said Marcus Paige, who led UNC with 16 points and seven assists. “We really dominated the game through that stretch and that transferred over to the second half. And once we got a big lead, we weren’t losing it today, especially after the way it went in South Bend.”
The Tar Heels played with a killer instinct that has been lacking most of the year. They sensed that Notre Dame was demoralized, according to Paige, and in turn they locked down defensively and sped up on the other end.
“They couldn’t get anything going offensively,” Paige said. “Our defense was taking them out of everything. Everything they tried, we were there. We were walling, we were boxing out.”
UNC held Notre Dame to a season-low 30.0 percent shooting. The Fighting Irish’s 47 points are the fewest by an opponent since the Tar Heels held Boston College to 46 points on Feb. 19, 2011.
“Their defense was a different level than what we've seen or played against in South Bend,” Brey said. “We really had nowhere to go. I give their defense a lot of credit.”
The Tar Heels also played solid defense in their loss in South Bend, holding the Irish to 34.8 percent shooting. The difference in that game came in the effort stats, where Brey’s squad held advantages in a second-chance points (23-0) and points off turnovers (19-0). UNC secured its lopsided victory by eliminating those lapses by ratcheting up the intensity during its run to the locker room.
UNC improved to 17-0 when winning both the points off turnovers (13-8) and second-chance points (15-5) statistics.