"It's a fine feeling right now" - Roy Williams
Yes Roy, yes it is...
Johnson complements the Heels nicely.
Anyone who has watched the Tar Heels this season knows how incredible Johnson has been all year. He has been the team's most consistent scorer and an absolute monster on the boards game in, and game out; it has been a performance that earned him recognition as a 1st or 2nd-team All American from every publication that matters. But as good as Johnson was all season, tonight may have been his most impressive game as a Tar Heel, and it wasn't necessarily the points and rebounds that stood out the most. Midway through the second-half, with Notre Dame making a hard charge at UNC, Johnson lost his cool and drew a costly technical and was sent to the bench. In the past, like last year, that would have been it for Johnson... but not this year. When Johnson returned to the game, Notre Dame was finished because they had absolutely no answer for him. He hit shots from all over the floor. He made all of his free-throws. And he owned every ball that came off either rim, all while maintaining his poise as UNC played keep-away from the Irish over the final minutes. He ended the game with 25 points and 12 rebounds, his (new) school-record 23rd double-double of the season, and was deservedly named the East Region's Most Outstanding player.
Not bad for a "complementary player."
Kennedy Meeks was a no-show in the first-half (0 points and 1 rebound, in 4 minutes), leaving some, I'm sure, to wonder if Friday's performance was perhaps a mirage. But as anyone from Syracuse can tell you, they play two halves in college basketball, and Meeks certainly took advantage of that tonight. Meeks came out of the half and ran through the ND interior defense like a bull through a china shop. He scored the Heels' first 8 points in the second-half and helped UNC grow their lead to 11. But as good as Meeks was, it almost got erased with a single play: with UNC up 11, Meeks corralled a loose ball and for some reason, decided to try and dribble the ball up the court. The ball was promptly, and easily, stolen back from him by Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson, who scored and ignited a 12-0 Notre Dame run. But just like Johnson, Meeks did not let this play define his night, and when he returned to the game he made up for his error by doing this:
HICKS! pic.twitter.com/jnSSKS2jf6— Michael Shamburger (@mshamburger1) March 28, 2016
That was as beautiful an outlet pass as you will ever see, and the resulting alley-oop was the dagger that allowed UNC to finally take full control of the game.
This is really the storyline for both of the games in Philly. On Friday, UNC was able to answer every time Indiana cut the lead to 10, but tonight, the stakes and pressure were much, much higher. When Notre Dame went on their 12-0 run in the middle of the second-half, UNC fans everywhere started flashing back to losses last year, and even earlier this season... but that's not this team. UNC responded with an immediate run of their own, sparked initially by Theo Pinson doing all of the "Theo Pinson-type" things, capped by Brice Johnson's dominance, and with healthy contributions from everyone else in between. And that's really what makes this team so tough: everyone contributes. UNC ended with all five starters in double-figures, and got another 18 points and 8 rebounds off the bench. All nine players who played made a positive contribution to the final outcome. Team's with that type of depth become essentially "slump-proof;" they are able to withstand poor games from one or two players because others can fill the void.
And when they are all clicking? Well then you get the type of beautiful basketball that requires the opponent to play flawlessly just to stay within 15 points.