Tar Heels heading to Final 4 after beating Irish 88-74

PHILADELPHIA, PA. – North Carolina will be heading to Houston. The Tar Heels defeated fellow ACC team Notre Dame 88-74. It’s the NCAA record 19th appearance for a Carolina team in the Final Four.

The game was in doubt after Notre Dame rallied from a 51-40 deficit to take a 52-51 lead behind Demetrius Jackson, who led the Irish with a game-high 26 points. During the 12-0 run, UNC’s Brice Johnson picked up a technical foul for throwing the ball over his shoulder in frustration.

Johnson left the game with three fouls. UNC’s Marcus Paige stopped the bleeding with a strong move to the basket for two to give Carolina the lead at 53-52. The Tar Heels would never trail again as that bucket started a 12-0 run.

“They made a great run and we made a great run right back at ’em,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.

Theo Pinson, who jokingly tried to horn in on a press conference recently, earned a trip to the press table with several big plays including a strong offensive rebound and put back that drew Williams’ praise. During the run, Pinson drove the left side of the lane for a layup. Then he threw an assist lob to Isaiah Hicks on a play where four Heels touched the ball in transition after a Paige steal. That capped the run to make it 63-52 midway through the second half.

It never got closer than eight again as the Heels worked the margin up to a game-high 17 at 88-71 late in the game.

“Brice made that mistake but I’m glad we overcame that,” said UNC’s Kennedy Meeks who scored eight straight points to start the second half and finished with 10 points “This team is always going to fight back.”

Despite Johnson’s “mistake,” he picked up the East Regional Most Outstanding Player award. Johnson led the Heels with 25 points and 12 rebounds. It was his UNC record 23rd double-double for him this season.

“I apologize for that technical foul. It sparked their run,” Johnson said adding that he should be a better leader than that. “My teammates stepped up.”

It was the fifth consecutive game that five Heels have scored in double figures. After Johnson’s 25, Marcus Paige had 13, Joel Berry and Justin Jackson had 11 each and Meeks had 10.

Both teams shot well as Carolina hit 61.5 percent while Notre Dame hit 55 percent. The Irish’s strategy of being deliberate on offense was working for a while because of their hot shooting and their six first-half three pointers.

But Carolina was shooting well itself and managed a 43-38 halftime lead. Meeks’ offensive explosion put Carolina in control before Notre Dame’s big run.

“We knew they’d have a run,” UNC’s Justin Jackson said. “We responded pretty well and we never let up.”

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey agreed with that assessment. “You have to give credit to Carolina. We took that one-point lead and they answered like men and wore us down a little bit,” he said. “I think they are playing the best of anybody left.”

UNC’s Paige said the getting to the Final Four is sweeter since the Tar Heels have been able to answer critics who doubted they were tough enough to win the ACC much less get to the Final Four. “We don’t want it to stop,” he said. “It’s been a special ride.”

The Tar Heels will have a chance to keep that ride going when they face ACC foe Syracuse in the second game of the Final Four Saturday at 8:49 p.m. in Houston.

Box score

LIVE GAME BLOG:

With seconds left, UNC coach Roy Williams lifts seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. Paige seems to be tearing up. Carolina is going to Houston.
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10:40 p.m. 77-68 with just under three minutes left. Carolina came up with points on 13 straight possessions. Notre Dame is hanging tough but trading baskets won’t do it for the Irish as time is running out. The lead has vacillated between eight and 12 points the last few minutes. Johnson is playing aggressively and no longer worried about his fouls.

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10:30 p.m. Notre Dame inexplicably called its last timeout after a Beachem bucket that makes it 65-56 just before the under eight minute timeout mark. ND had gone on a 12-0 run and then Carolina followed with a 12-0 run of its own. Theo Pinson has been the catalyst lately. He drove the left side of the lane for a layup. Then he threw an assist lob to Isaiah Hicks on a play where four Heels touched the ball in transition after a Paige steal. ND pressing and Johnson back in as play starts again.

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10:26 p.m. North Carolina has gone on a 10-0 run to re-take control at 61-52 with under 10 minutes left in the game. Notre Dame called timeout and have just one left. Irish haven’t scored in more than three minutes. Carolina’s doing it without Johnson, who is still on the bench with three fouls.

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At the under 12-minute mark, we’ve got a game. It looked like Carolina was running away with it at 51-40 but Notre Dame went on a 12-0 run to take a 52-51 lead. UNC’s Marcus Paige drove the baseline and hit a tough shot to put the Heels back up 53-52. Carolina will have the ball after Theo Pinson came up with a steal and called timeout. Johnson on the bench with three fouls.
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10:14 p.m. UNC got eight straight points from Kennedy Meeks to go up by 11 at 51-40 but ND, behind Jackson, has gone on an 8-0 run to make it 51-48 with 13 minutes left. Brice Johnson picked up a foul and threw the ball over his shoulder for a technical. ND hit both free throws and now have a chance to take the lead. It’s 51-50.

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HALFTIME: Notre Dame is winning the tempo battle but North Carolina is shooting well. Still Roy Williams wants Brice Johnson to get down low rather than settling for jump shots. Fortunately for Carolina, he’s been hot, scoring 15 points. Of course, Notre Dame is hot as well, sinking six threes in the first half. The Tar Heels countered with four threes.

ND’s Demetrious Jackson and V.J. Beachem have combined for 24 of the Irish’s points. Zach Auguste picked up two fouls early and has only two points.

Look for a more attacking, aggressive North Carolina pushing the action offensively in the second half. If Notre Dame doesn’t continue to shoot close to its current 58 percent in the second half, the Irish will eventually begin to fade.

North Carolina is in no foul trouble. If that continues, it will be tough for the Irish to come back. On the other hand, should Carolina fall into the slow tempo trap and fail to shoot a high percentage, it could go down to the wire. Then, with ND’s ability to hit the three, the Irish could steal one.

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9:39 p.m. This seems a little like a slow-down game because Notre Dame is being so deliberate but with both teams shooting well over 50 percent from the field, it’s a fairly high-scoring game. North Carolina, behind Brice Johnson’s 15 points, leads Notre Dame 43-38 at the break.

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9:35 p.m. Bonzie Colson has gotten aggressive down low for ND. He scored on Johnson, then drew a foul on Johnson. Johnson is needed for sure as he has 15 points and eight rebounds to lead Carolina. UNC up 43-38.

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9:25 p.m. Justin Jackson and Joel Berry hit back-to-back threes to put Carolina up 35-29, the Heels’ largest lead. Buckets by Demetrious Jackson and Steve Vastoria make the score 39-34 with under four minutes left in the first half. Notre Dame still taking its time.

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9:19 p.m. A deliberate Notre Dame team has been really hot. North Carolina is getting the shots it wants. As a result, the teams are tied at 29-all. Beachem and Jackson have 22 of the Irish’s 29 points.

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9:11 p.m. Notre Dame is five of seven from beyond the arc and are seven of 10 shooting. Marcus Paige hit a pair of threes.

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9:01 p.m. UNC and Notre Dame are tied at 10-10 early. It’s obvious that the Irish are trying to milk as much of the clock as possible while the Heels are pushing the ball quickly. Notre Dame got up 10-6 but free throws by UNC’s Justin Jackson and a strong follow shot by UNC’s Brice Johnson has the teams tied at the first TV timeout break. Notre Dame’s big man Zach Auguste just picked up his second foul already.

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8:49 p.m. They’re introducing the players for North Carolina and Notre Dame. The Tar Heels need to do what they do – try to get as many offensive possessions as possible. Notre Dame needs to get Carolina out of rhythm.
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8:31 p.m. North Carolina or Notre Dame will be playing Syracuse next Saturday. Malachi Richardson scored 23 points and Syracuse went on a 29-8 run in the second half to beat top-seeded Virginia 68-62 in the Midwest Regional final of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday night. Tar Heels and Irish are on the court warming up now.

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CBS North Carolina is your home for the NCAA Tournament and WNCN’s website is your home for analysis and updates of North Carolina’s Elite 8 matchup with ACC foe Notre Dame Sunday starting at 8:49 p.m.

The winner of the Virginia-Syracuse game will play the winner of the UNC-Notre Dame game in the Final Four in Houston next Saturday. That guarantees that an ACC team will be in the championship game Monday, April 4.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey was asked how impressive it was for North Carolina to have won the ACC regular season and tournament titles in a year when it was easily recognized as college basketball’s best league.

“I think it shows the power that they have. And they’re old — it’s funny, so many people talked about, ‘You’re in this position last year, you’re playing Kentucky — Kentucky was young,'” Brey said, referring to last season’s Elite Eight when the Fighting Irish took then-undefeated Kentucky down to the wire. “I always felt good about that one. This one worries me more because they’re men. They’ve been together a while and they’ve played. And they really have played like veterans.”

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