PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – The top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels officially did not choke Sunday night in the East Regional Final. They instead took down the fifth-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 88-74, to move on to the Final Four.
Brice Johnson led the Tar Heels with a big double-double of 25 points and 12 rebounds, while four other North Carolina players hit double-digits in scoring. Demetrius Jackson and V.J. Beachem combined for 44 Notre Dame points in the loss.
The Tar Heels flat out dominated the Fighting Irish inside, holding ND to just 15 rebounds all game. UNC also had 23 second chance points, and the offensive rebounds really piled up down the stretch.
"It's our game plan all the time [to pound the ball inside]. We've got to try to get the ball inside. We have good players inside," said coach Roy Williams about the performance.
Williams' team is now on its way to the 2-16 Final Four in Houston, where they'll be the only one seed competing. They take on tenth-seeded Syracuse on Saturday.
How It Went Down
Notre Dame gained an early lead, scoring on their first four possessions to go up 10-6 three minutes in. On the other end of the floor, UNC used its superior size inside to score some buckets while the Fighting Irish cooled off, but right after a TV timeout at the 14:38 mark, things really began cooking for both sides.
With the game at 12-10 after a pair of Joel James free throws, Marcus Paige traded threes with a pair of Notre Dame players, hitting from beyond the arc on two straight possessions to keep up with the Fighting Irish, who got three-balls of their own from Matt Farrell and Demetrius Jackson within a trio of series. After Jackson split a pair at the foul line, Notre Dame went into the second timeout up a point, 19-18.
Out of the second break, Brice Johnson converted an and-one for the Tar Heels, a play followed by six unanswered for Notre Dame. The guards continued to head the offense for the Fighting Irish while North Carolina targeted the paint.
Back-and-forth the two teams went, and while it remained tied at 29 going into the next stoppage in play, a new electricity built up in the Wells Fargo Center, especially after a ferocious baseline drive-and-slam by V.J. Beachem caused the crowd to erupt in astonishment.
Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II hit back-to-back triples right after play resumed once again, and while Steve Vasturia answered with a longball of his own, the Tar Heels were able to continue the every-possession scoring on their end to hold a five-point lead with 3:52 left to play in the first.
UNC's advantage dwindled to 39-38 after four straight points from Fighting Irish forward Bonzie Colson, but by the time there was only half a minute left in the half, the Tar Heels were back up by five. Marcus Paige sent the half into its final stoppage after expertly driving and finding Justin Jackson in the lane for the deuce to indeed make it 43-38.
A Notre Dame shot clock violation and a missed jumper by Berry II sent the game into halftime, the Tar Heels leading by a slim five. Brice Johnson led the way with 15 points and eight boards in the half with Demetrius Jackson and V.J. Beachem guiding the Fighting Irish with 13 and 11, respectively.
Kennedy Meeks started off strongly in the second, scoring UNC's first three baskets of the period to stretch the lead to 49-40. Meeks continued his surge on UNC's first series immediately after a 30-second Fighting Irish timeout, prompting the first media timeout of the second half with another basket inside to give the Tar Heels the game's first double-digit lead.
Demetrius Jackson and Notre Dame certainly would not let up at that, however. Jackson scored five straight and hit Zach Auguste for an alley-oop plus the foul to cut the lead to just three and anger the Tar Heels, evidently too.
Brice Johnson was called for an offensive foul on the next UNC possession and flung the ball up in the air in disgust, earning himself a technical foul and a pair of free throws for the Fighting Irish. Vasturia drained the foul shots and Bonzie Colson scored a layup for Notre Dame on the ensuing sequence to give the lead back to Mike Brey's team at 52-51.
After finally breaking the 12-0 run with a Marcus Paige jumper, UNC finally called a timeout to settle the Tar Heels with 12:17 remaining. North Carolina refocused to score eight unanswered points of their own after the pause in play, now turning the tides back against their opponents and stretching the lead back out to nine at 61-52; Brey was now forced to use a timeout.
"We took that one-point lead and they really answered it like men," coach Brey stated after the game. "My teammates did a very good job of just playing. They really stood up in a time of need," added Brice Johnson post-game.
The break did not serve its purpose for the Fighting Irish, however, and UNC transferred their momentum past the break, breaking out into transition soon after play resumed. An Isaiah Hicks alley-oop throwdown gave the Tar Heels another double-digit lead with just over nine minutes to go. It was 65-56 with 8:05 left on the clock when the next ND timeout came.
Notre Dame could not find any leverage to get the game back to within a basket or two, and the lead hit its new peak of 12 with five-and-a-half minutes to go, the Tar Heels up 73-61. Each basket on the Fighting Irish's end of the court was answered forthright with a Tar Heels bucket.
"Once we got in our rhythm and knocked down some shots, it was game," said Paige.
The Fighting Irish's hopes sunk further with two-and-a-half minutes to go, as UNC grabbed offensive boards to hold Notre Dame on the defensive end for a minute. When Brey finally got his players to foul, Theo Pinson knocked down his two free throws. Steve Vasturia scored a quick bucket on the other end, but Notre Dame once again failed to grab a defensive rebound on a missed Pinson free throw, as Johnson grabbed a board and drained his own pair of shots from the charity stripe.
V.J. Beachem was fouled by North Carolina on the other end and he missed his attempt from the line, Johnson grabbing the board and leading the Tar Heels back down the floor. UNC dodged a foul until there were just three seconds left on the shot clock, and after Marcus Paige hit three free throws, it was all but over, the Tar Heels up 15 with under a minute left.
North Carolina iced the game with free throws, and the result showed 88-74 on the scoreboard as the final buzzer sounded. The Tar Heels are headed to Houston while Notre Dame now must head home.
"We showed our toughness. We showed we are a team that a lot of teams are scared to play. It stinks to go like this. You live and learn," remarked Bonzie Colson in the locker room after his team's defeat.
Team Of The Tournament
After the game, not only were the Tar Heels celebrated, but the team of the regional was announced. It featured Johnson and Paige of UNC, Jackson and Beachem of Notre Dame, and Indiana's Yogi Ferrell.