GREENSBORO, N.C. --- Once again, the wait was worthwhile.
No. 12 North Carolina emerged from another postponed home game with an important conference victory, beating No. 20 Notre Dame 83-76 on Sunday at the Greensboro Coliseum.
The Tar Heels (21-4, 9-2 ACC) led by as many as 15 points in the second half and held on down the stretch for their ninth win in the last 10 games.
Justin Jackson led the way with 16 points, but five of his teammates also scored at least 11 points.
It was the second UNC home game to be postponed from Saturday to Sunday this season. UNC ripped N.C. State 107-56 after icy conditions forced that game back a day, playing perhaps its best game of the season.
The Tar Heels weren’t quite as sharp against Notre Dame, but they showed renewed vigor on defense and played well enough to remain atop the ACC standings.
The Fighting Irish (17-7, 6-5) dropped their fourth game in a row.
The atmosphere was such that it played like a UNC home game away from home. The lower bowl of the arena was full, and the same was true of the upper level except for a handful of rows from the top behind the baskets and in the corners.
“The people here today, I’m thrilled," Roy Williams said. "Those people were into it. I love them. I wish I could say thank you to every single one of them because they were important to us winning the game.”
One of the keys for UNC entering the game was to take advantage of its size advantage on offense to offset Notre Dame’s quickness edge on the other end of the floor.
The Tar Heels accomplished what they wanted in familiar fashion, bludgeoning the Fighting Irish on the backboards. UNC, which entered the game having rebounded a nation-leading percent of its misses, pulled down 17 offensive rebounds and outscored Notre Dame 19-13 on second-chance points.
UNC also finished with a 40-18 advantage on points in the paint, with the post quartet of Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, Tony Bradley, and Luke Maye combining for 43 points.
UNC started quickly in each half, causing Notre Dame coach Mike Brey to use a timeout in each instance before the arrival of the official timeout. The Tar Heels led 9-2 at the time of Brey’s timeout in the first half, and they opened the second half with a 12-7 spurt to extend their lead to 54-41 at the time of Brey’s timeout.
UNC relied on Jackson and point guard Joel Berry II for scoring down the stretch, but the duo had plenty of help earlier in the game.
The Tar Heels got a balanced attack with contributions from some unlikely sources. Bradley scored 12 points off the bench, his most since Nov. 22, and Kenny Williams added 11 points.
The Tar Heels led 42-34 at halftime despite getting no scoring from Berry. Berry missed all three of his shots from the field but did have five assists. The lead was significant in that the Tar Heels have struggled for much of the season when they haven’t gotten scoring punch from Berry.
Berry entered the game averaging 16.1 points on 50.3-percent shooting from the field in games won by UNC and just 10.3 points per game and 30.6-percent shooting from the field in UNC’s losses. He finally broke through with a pair of free throws with 18:29 remaining in the game and finished with 12 points.
Kenny Williams has established himself as one of UNC’s top defenders, but he provided the Tar Heels a big lift with 11 points. Williams was especially effective in the first half with eight points on 3-of-4 shooting. He made 2-of-3 3-point attempts and also added a pretty floater on a drive from the left side.
"We had a discussion this week," Roy Williams said. "I said, ‘Do you not trust me as a coach?’ He looked at me like I was weird. I said, ‘Well, I think you’re pretty good because I keep putting your rear end out there. So why don’t you have confidence?’ Those were big plays that he made for us today."
Williams had scored a total of 21 points in UNC’s previous six games, and he entered Sunday having made 1 of 11 3-point tries over the last four games.
Awaiting Pinson's Return
As expected, junior forward Theo Pinson missed his third consecutive game since he rolled his right ankle on Jan. 26 against Virginia Tech, though he appears to be nearing a return to action based on the extent of his pregame workout.
Pinson is extra valuable against a team such as Notre Dame that tries to take advantage of opponents who use two traditional big men. His presence would have given coach Roy Williams the option to downsize and improve perimeter defense at the expense of some bulk and scoring inside.
Without Pinson as an option at power forward, the Tar Heels stayed with their traditional two-post lineups for the vast majority of the game. Williams went small late in the second half with freshman Brandon Robinson, but he abandoned the strategy as the Fighting Irish cut into UNC’s lead.
"We hope Theo will be back soon," Roy Williams said. "He's getting closer. He's feeling great, and we're just trying to be cautious.”
Next Up: Duke
North Carolina heads to Durham on Thursday (8:00 ESPN/ACCN) for the first of two rivalry showdowns with the Blue Devils.