CHAPEL HILL — It took two games and two sloppy victories for North Carolina coach Roy Williams to tell his players he was tired of this – tired of winning games ugly.
The Tar Heels did that again Monday night in a 63-61 victory against Notre Dame – a victory that followed a four-point win at Virginia Tech, the ACC’s last-place team, on Saturday. After that one, Williams expressed disappointment but some satisfaction, too.
He said to be great, teams have to learn how to win without their best. That was all well and good Saturday, but a little more than 48 hours later, Williams had had enough.
“I said Saturday to have a really good year, you’ve got to win some games ugly,” Williams said. “I’m tired of winning games ugly. It’s better than losing games ugly. But we just – I really thought we’d have a tremendous sense of urgency today. We played so much harder in practice yesterday than we did in the game today.”
Williams gave Notre Dame (15-16, 6-12 ACC), winners of two games in the past month, plenty of credit. He described the Fighting Irish as “unlucky,” and said he told Notre Dame coach Mike Brey that UNC had been fortunate.
The No. 14 Tar Heels (23-7, 13-4) led by as many as 15 in the first half and by 14 at halftime. Then their lead withered away during the first six minutes of the second half, and UNC held on to win only after guard Marcus Paige blocked Eric Atkins’ last-second shot at the rim.
Paige scored 35 points during the Tar Heels’ 85-84 overtime victory at N.C. State last week, and he won that game with a layup in the final second. He scored seven points Monday – his second consecutive game in single digits – but he helped seal the game with another late play, this one on defense.
His blocked shot – Paige’s sixth of the season – came after he missed two free throws in the final 17 seconds. Those misses allowed Notre Dame to hang around, and allowed Atkins, who scored a game-high 21 points, to have a chance to tie it in the final seconds.
“I was in the right help spot, and it would have been a tough shot anyway,” Paige said of his block. “But I wanted to do whatever I could to help, and I was in the right spot, so I just had to make up for missing a couple of free throws.”
Afterward, Paige’s missed free throws played over in his mind. He entered the game having made 89.1 percent and his misses haunted him.
“They put me on the foul line, I’m supposed to make them pay,” Paige said. “And I was upset that the game was still in jeopardy after I made those trips to the line.”
The Tar Heels won despite scoring 22 second-half points – a total that tied their lowest-scoring half of the season – and despite missing 12 of 22 free throws. Notre Dame, which trailed 41-27 at halftime, outscored UNC 22-5 to start the second half and the Fighting Irish led 49-46 with a little less than 12 minutes remaining.
Asked what he was thinking at that point, forward James Michael McAdoo described it simply: “Pick it up.”
McAdoo did his part, giving UNC a 50-49 lead with about 10 minutes to play, and then putting the Tar Heels ahead for good with a spinning turnaround shot in the lane with 3 minutes, 9 seconds left.
That gave the Tar Heels a 57-56 lead and UNC went ahead by five before Notre Dame forward Pat Connaughton cut it to two with a layup and free throw with 52 seconds left. Connaughton finished with 17 points – 10 of which came in the first 31/2 minutes of the second half.
“I’m really proud of our group, man,” said Brey, whose team has won twice in the past month. “We put ourselves in position.”
Williams was ultimately happy, too, that his team found a way – again. It was the Tar Heels’ 12th straight win – their longest conference winning streak since the 1986-87 season. Even so, the victory left him troubled. Asked what concerns the past two games raised, Williams said, “Everything.”
The Tar Heels have won the past two games despite a lack of those characteristics. Williams said he told his team that “we haven’t accomplished anything.”
“Even in games like N.C. State, we treat those games like losses, to be honest with you,” said McAdoo, who led UNC with 14 points. “No disrespect to them, but in certain games, you’ve just got to realize that you didn’t deserve to win – by your play, by your actions and just by the way we prepared.
“So I think we’ve just really got to realize that we’ve been lucky.”
Still, it was another victory that followed another escape act, and now the Tar Heels will have four days – a luxury, given their recent schedule – to prepare for their regular-season finale at No. 4 Duke. Williams expressed some hope that maybe his players had learned a lesson during the past two games.
“We’ve got some big-time dreams and big-time goals,” he said, “and the only way you’re going to reach those is invest more.”
No. 14 NORTH CAROLINA 63, NOTRE DAME 61
Percentages: FG .481, FT .417. 3-Point Goals: 6-19, .316 (Vasturia 2-6, Atkins 2-6, Connaughton 1-3, Burgett 1-3, Beachem 0-1). Team Rebounds: 1. Blocked Shots: 1 (Knight). Turnovers: 13 (Connaughton 3, Atkins 2, Vasturia 2, Knight 2, Burgett, Jackson). Steals: 2 (Connaughton, Knight). Technical Fouls: None.
Percentages: FG .463, FT .455. 3-Point Goals: 3-12, .250 (Moody 1-1, Paige 1-5, McDonald 1-6). Team Rebounds: 3. Blocked Shots: 3 (McAdoo, Manor, Paige). Turnovers: 10 (McDonald 2, Paige 2, Tokoto 2, Britt 2, Johnson, McAdoo). Steals: 7 (Paige 2, James, Meeks, Johnson, Britt, McAdoo). Technical Fouls: None.
A—15,175. Officials—Bryan Kersey, Michael Stephens, Mike Stuart.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter