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UNC is Finally Tough Enough

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It would appear the toughness question that has dogged UNC over the course of the season has undeniably been answered. Carolina's toughness has been an issue all season but the last nine games would seem to have put the notion that the Tar Heels lack an edge to rest. A quick Google search of "UNC" and "toughness" yields dozens of results, but the content of those results depends on what point of the season you reference.

"UNC Searching for Toughness After 80-76 Loss to Notre Dame", "UNC's Toughness Nowhere to be Found", and "When it comes to toughness and heart, UNC can learn a thing or two from Duke" were some of the headlines from just six weeks or so ago. The Tar Heels had lost six games by a combined 22 points, yet seemed somehow soft. But in very short order Carolina flipped the script, avenging the brutal Duke loss and putting a suffocating grip on the ACC Tournament while dishing up payback for regular season defeats at Notre Dame and Virginia.

While it seemed like the questions of toughness were answered, other than the win at Duke, UNC had not truly been challenged much in the previous eight games beyond the ACC final versus Virginia. The Tar Heels cruised to wins over Pitt and Notre Dame in Washington and easily dispatched Florida Gulf Coast and Providence in Raleigh. Even in the big matchup with Big Ten regular-season champion Indiana in Philadelphia, the hot Carolina shooting resulted in a first-half double-digit lead that was never really threatened.

In the Elite Eight, Carolina faced its old nemesis Notre Dame, who had beaten the Heels in South Bend in a game that seemingly favored UNC on the stat sheet but was an anomaly due to the Irish's free throw discrepancy and an amazing two turnovers for the game. Just a few weeks later, Carolina had returned the favor with a 31-point beatdown in the ACC Tournament. In their rubber match Sunday night, despite some hot outside shooting for Notre Dame, UNC looked ready to assume control early in the second half. Kennedy Meeks sparked a second-half spurt with 8 consecutive points and with Carolina up 11, Meeks came up with the ball after a Joel Berry steal and UNC had a chance to score in transition to go ahead by 13 points. Instead Meeks tried to dribble and the ball was stolen by Demetrius Jackson, who reeled off five straight points to blunt the Tar Heel momentum. After Brice Johnson was called for an over the back foul, he flipped the ball behind his head and drew a technical foul. Steve Vasturia made the free throws and after Bonzie Colson scored to complete a four-point possession, Notre Dame had put together a 12-0 run and re-taken the lead at 52-51 just when it looked like UNC was going to turn the game into a rout.

Enter UNC's new-found toughness.

Marcus Paige immediately stepped up and hit a jumper to re-take the lead. Theo Pinson made huge play after huge play on both ends of the floor. Isaiah Hicks came up big inside and Carolina held Notre Dame scoreless for over four minutes while answering the Irish run with a 12-0 run of their own. Paige, Meeks, Pinson, and Hicks combined on this exclamation point of that run to re-establish the lead at 11 points:

After Johnson's technical, UNC would score on 13 consecutive possessions, and 19 of its last 21 (one of which was the final possession where UNC did not attempt to score). Moreover, after the technical (and a lengthy benching by Roy Williams), Johnson would return to the game to notch 10 points, 4 rebounds, and another highlight-reel block in the last 7 minutes of the game. Clearly the technical foul did not take him out of his game mentally as it might have in the earlier parts of the season.

Much has been made of how loose UNC has been throughout the tournament, but Sunday night showed how dialed in they can be as well. They hit the turbo button against the Irish after falling behind and ended up winning the game going away.  Hard to be tougher than that.