PHILADELPHIA – No matter how well Notre Dame played, North Carolina played a little bit better.
In fact, the Tar Heels played like soon-to-be crowned national champions.
Ultimately, that was the reason for the end of Notre Dame’s season one game shy of the Final Four for the second year in a row as North Carolina claimed an 88-74 victory to advance to the Final Four for the first time since 2009.
The Irish – valiant to the very end -- simply couldn’t get enough defensive stops.
North Carolina shot 61.5 percent from the field, converted 18-of-22 from the free-throw line, and assisted on 17 of 32 baskets while turning it over just six times.
North Carolina (32-6) – winners of nine in a row -- will take on Syracuse (23-13), 68-62 upset winners over Virginia, on Saturday, April 2, in NRG Stadium in Houston.
Villanova (29-5) plays Oklahoma (25-7) for the right to advance to the championship game on Monday, April 4.
Notre Dame’s season ends where it did a year ago as the Irish (24-12) recorded their first back-to-back Elite 8 appearances since 1978-79. The Irish were the only team in the Elite 8 to make a return trip from a year ago.
Notre Dame shots 55.1 percent from the field, including 9-of-18 from three-point range. The Irish were 11-of-14 from the free-throw line and turned it over just seven times.
Leading the way for the Tar Heels was Brice Johnson with 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting. Johnson also grabbed 12 rebounds. All five Tar Heel starters scored in double figures, including Marcus Paige with 13, Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson with 11 apiece and Kennedy Meeks with 10.
Trailing by 11 after the first TV timeout of the second half, the Irish appeared to be heading toward disaster, particularly when Demetrius Jackson hobbled off the court favoring his right ankle.
But the Irish came out of the break went on a 12-0 run to take the lead, 52-51, with 13 minutes remaining. The advantage was short-lived. The Tar Heels scored the next 12 points over the next three minutes and never trailed again.
If it was Jackson’s last game in an Irish uniform – should he choose to turn pro after his junior year -- he saved the best for last. In addition to dictating the tempo of the game most of the night, Jackson score 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting.
V.J. Beachem tossed in 18 points and Steve Vasturia added 11 for the Irish. Jackson and Beachem were named to the all East Regional team. Johnson garnered the MVP award.
Notre Dame successfully established the pace from the outset of the game, which worked well in concert with a hot-shooting start. The Irish connected on 58.3 percent (14-of-24) from the field in the first half, which allowed them to stay in their desired pace, as did just three turnovers during the first half
A tactical decision by North Carolina head coach Roy Williams – inserting 6-foot-10, 280-pound Joel James after Auguste picked up his first foul – worked beautifully for the Tar Heels. Auguste couldn’t resist banging with James at the 14:38 mark, and he was forced to sit the rest of the first 20 minutes with two fouls.
Still, the Irish managed to hang in there and even build a four-point lead on back-to-back threes by Jackson and Beachem.
The Tar Heels began to heat up from three-point range as well as Justin Jackson and Joel Berry III hit consecutive long-range bombs en route to a 35-29 advantage – their largest lead in the first half.
Two more buckets by Jackson – he had 13 points in the first half – pulled the Irish to within one before North Carolina scored the final four points for a 43-38 lead at the break.
North Carolina shot 64.0 percent (16-of-25) from the field in the first half, including 4-of-6 from three-point range. The Irish had no answer for Brice Johnson in the first half. Johnson scored 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds.
There were six lead changes and eight ties in the first 20 minutes.
Auguste’s collegiate career comes to a close with 822) rebounds, which ranks 12th on the all-time Notre Dame list. His 1,274 points places him 31st in Irish history.