After going much of the season holding even good three point shooting teams in check, the Heels were finally bit hard by a perimeter shooting team as the Irish hit 10-23 from three and the Heels failed to convert down the stretch to fall 71-70 at home to Notre Dame.
The Irish started fast out of the gate with Jerian Grant getting the ball to open shooters both beyond the arc and inside it. Five first half threes and some easy looks at the rim by the Irish helped Notre Dame to race out to a lead as much as 10 at one in the half. UNC pushed back to within one at 16-15 and 33-32 but could not get over the hump. In both instances the Irish responded and took a 38-34 lead into locker room. Marcus Paige scored 10 points in the first half to keep the Heels in the game.
After halftime, the parade of threes continued as the Irish once again pushed the lead out 11 twice and 10 with 11:32 left in the game. UNC, which had relied heavily on its defense through 14 games, had repeated trouble getting stops against the Irish. Despite the struggles on defense, the Tar Heel offense finally got on track thanks in part to a spark from Theo Pinson off the bench. Pinson hit a three then had a follow dunk and a pull up jumper to cut the Irish lead to 60-54. Notre Dame again responded and led 69-61 with 6:25 left.
UNC then went on a 9-0 run to reclaim the lead thanks to six Kennedy Meeks' free throws and a Paige three. After a defensive stop the Heels had a chance to expand the lead but Meeks missed a jumper. Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton missed on the next possession but the Heels failed to grab the rebound and Zach Auguste hit the putback to give the Irish the lead back with 1:08 left in the game.
The following possession saw Paige miss two threes and the Heels get two rebounds to retain a shot at taking the lead. Following a timeout with 18.6 seconds left, UNC got the ball into Paige's hands but his driving layup missed. Notre Dame rebounded the miss and Meeks fouled out stopping the clock. Notre Dame's Steve Vasturia failed to convert both free throws giving UNC one last chance. Paige's desperation three with two Irish players draped all over him went long sending the Heels to 1-1 in ACC play.
Obviously, UNC three point defense fell well short of the season long run of solid performances. On one hand, the Heels did a great job of shutting down Jerian Grant who came in averaging 17.9 ppg but scored just 8 on 1-8 shooting and fouled out with two minutes left. If the game plan was to make other Irish players beat UNC it was well executed in that regard. However, Grant was able to turn the defensive attention into open looks for his teammates and the Irish, with multiple three point threats, made the Heels pay. While much is made of UNC overhelping the fact UNC had defensive breakdowns stopping the ball led to rotations which Notre Dame eventually exploited for open looks. This didn't occur for just threes but shots at the rim as well.
In short, Notre Dame was as advertised offensively and in the battle of the two team's strengths the Irish offense won out. On the other end, UNC played well enough offensively from an efficiency standpoint but not from a pure shooting perspective. The Heels finished the game at 36.9% including 30.3% in the second half. The Tar Heels also missed their final eight shots including three misses from beyond the arc by Paige. The junior guard has been trending back toward his play of last season in recent games but when it came down to crunch time the shots simply didn't fall. Brice Johnson also was a non-factor going 3-11 and sitting several minutes because of his inability to guard Connaughton on the perimeter. That in combination with Meeks' early 2nd half foul trouble force the Heels play small for much of the half.
Paige led the Heels with 15 points but missed his final four shots, three from beyond the arc. Meeks and J.P. Tokoto had 12 points apiece while Johnson chipped in 9 points. The stat line of the night belongs to Pinson who played well in the small lineup scoring seven points and grabbing eight rebounds.
Based on how these teams rate out, this isn't necessarily a bad loss. In terms of protecting home court in ACC play, it is troublesome. Road wins are tough to come by in the ACC so letting a home win slip away in a game that was winnable makes the overall margin of error thinner. It also makes Saturday's tilt with Louisville game UNC really needs to win.