The Tar Heels run to the title game ends in disappointing fashion as Notre Dame explodes for a 24-2 run over a five minute stretch to take the ACC title 92-80.
It was everything a title game on a Saturday night should be. Two teams going back and forth in exciting fashion. UNC opened the game using every bit of its advantage in the paint to build an early 19-13 lead. Then the Tar Heels experienced just how explosive the Notre Dame offense could be as the Irish ripped off a 12-0 run to take erase UNC's six point lead and push ahead by the same margin. The Tar Heels spent much of the rest of the half essentially trading baskets and without the benefit of three point shooting. Justin Jackson and Marcus Paige struggled from deep combining to go 0-6 from three in the opening half. As a result UNC went into the half trailing 39-34.
Much like the Louisville game, UNC opened up the second half with a resounding response. The Tar Heels offense balanced out thanks to Marcus Paige whose three with 9:58 left gave the Heels a 63-54 edge. To that point UNC had been incredibly efficient on offense. On the defensive end, Notre Dame consistently drove the ball with Jerian Grant. Every drive resulted in a foul putting Grant at the line. Six of Notre Dame's 15 points by the 10 minute mark of the half came at the line. For all UNC's offensive production, the Tar Heels led by just nine points which against Notre Dame's quick strike offense was not nearly enough.
Then the walls came crashing down.
A flurry of Notre Dame points seemed to coincide with the Tar Heels hitting a skid offensively. The Irish used a Demetrius Jackson three and a Steve Vesturia jumper to cut the Tar Heel lead to 64-61. Then came perhaps the turning point of the half. After the Irish's Jackson drove too deep his pass was knocked away by Brice Johnson. The ball bounce around hitting two Tar Heels before finding its way back in the Irish's hands. With UNC in scramble mode, Notre Dame made four quick passes finally outpacing UNC's closeouts where Vesturia hit an open three in the corner. After a Paige miss, Pat Connaughton hit a three in the secondary break to give the Irish the lead which turned out to be for good.
Roy Williams tried to stem the tide with a timeout but the Tar Heels went onto to commit three straight turnovers following the break to help Notre Dame extend the lead. UNC's offense also went cold and the Irish offensive push snowballed. While Williams refuses to blame fatigue for his team's collapse, it became clear that the Irish onslaught served to exacerbate any tired legs UNC had. As long as UNC was leading and playing well, fatigue becomes an afterthought but after Notre Dame's impressive run, it was clear the Tar Heels were suddenly a step behind.
UNC attempted to make an additional push but Notre Dame's free throw shooting, which finished with the Irish hitting 28-32 compared to UNC's 5-7 turned out to be the real difference maker. The three point shooting, forever the bane of UNC's defensive existence was gaudy 10-20, UNC did mitigate some of that with seven made threes and plenty of looks in the paint. Losing the free throw line battle 28-5 was the ultimate killer.
Paige led UNC with 24 points overcoming a poor shooting first half to hit 9-18 and 5-11 from three. Johnson was 10-12 from the floor for 20 points. Both were named to the ACC All-Tournament First Team. Justin Jackson followed up his career night on Friday with 7 points on 3-12 shooting and was named to the second team.
In the end, the Tar Heels ran into a buzz saw of an offensive team in Notre Dame and the loss should, in no way, take away from the progress made in the previous two games regarding this team's level of play and heart. The Tar Heels are certainly clicking much later than we are accustomed to seeing. Injuries and a lack of practice time might be contributing factors in that. Still, if UNC can continue to build on these four days, the Tar Heels could be the most dangerous #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.