After their first time on the court together on Friday night before their game against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament semifinals, North Carolina’s players returned to their locker room to find a short message written on a board on a wall.
“Three times in a row,” it said, and they all knew what it meant.
“We needed a little payback,” Theo Pinson, the sophomore guard, said hours later, after the Tar Heels’ 78-47 victory against Notre Dame – a win that sends UNC to the ACC tournament championship game for the fifth time in six seasons.
The message board alluded to UNC’s recent woes against Notre Dame. Two defeats last season. One earlier this season.
In the Tar Heels’ past two games against Notre Dame they’d surrendered double-digit leads and been helpless to quell dominant Fighting Irish runs. It was fitting in some ways, then, that UNC perpetrated on Friday night the sort of thing that doomed them a season ago in the ACC tournament title game.
The Tar Heels that night surrendered a 26-3 run in the second half that allowed Notre Dame to finish with a 90-82 victory. UNC (27-6) remembered that stretch on Friday night and then did Notre Dame (21-11) one better, and outscored the Fighting Irish 24-0 during a decisive 9 ½-minute period that began toward the end of the first half and carried over to the beginning of the second.
Before that run began UNC led 23-22. When it ended, after Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson made a pair of free throws for his team’s first points in nearly 10 minutes, the Tar Heels led 47-24 with about 16 ½ minutes to play.
Later, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said he and his team could have made their travel arrangements back home at halftime. In UNC’s locker room the conversation was different: Don’t let up. Remember what happened the last time against Notre Dame, which erased a 15-point deficit during its 80-76 home victory against UNC on Feb. 6.
“When we came in at halftime we were like we can’t give up, we don’t want to have any regrets,” said Joel Berry, who finished with 12 points and was one of five UNC players to score in double figures. “We don’t want to look back and say, ‘I wish I did this or did that.’ ”
By halftime, though, UNC was firmly in control. The Tar Heels played perhaps their best 6 ½-minute stretch of the season at the end of the first half – one in which they excelled with a smaller lineup after Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks left the game after they’d both committed their second foul.
Their absence left UNC with a lineup that included Isaiah Hicks, the junior forward, alongside four smaller players: Berry and Marcus Paige in the backcourt, and Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson alongside Hicks in the frontcourt.
The smaller lineup allowed the Tar Heels to more effectively Notre Dame, which uses a smaller lineup of its own. After Colson cut UNC’s lead to one point with six minutes, 12 seconds remaining in the first half, Notre Dame attempted four shots the rest of the half.
It missed all of them, and also committed five turnovers. The Tar Heels ended the first half with nine consecutive defensive stops, and on the other end they continued to extend their lead, from one point to three, from seven to 10, from 10 to 13 after Paige made a 3-pointer, his third of the half, with a little less than two minutes remaining before halftime.
After that one Paige, who has spent a large portion of the season mired in an uncharacteristic shooting slump, appeared to yell, “I’m back,” on his way back down the court. Asked about it afterward he smiled and played coy.
“You know, it’s hard for me to remember,” said Paige, who finished with a team-high 16 points. “I usually do a good job of remembering what happens during the course of the game but for some reason I can’t remember whether I said that or not.”
No matter. UNC’s lead eventually grew to 41-22 at halftime, and the Tar Heels weren’t done though the half was. Some players said later they wish it had kept on going.
Defensively, UNC had all the answers during the final six minutes of the first half. Offensively, the Tar Heels could do no wrong. And it all happened with Johnson, the first-team All-ACC selection, on the bench, watching.
“We were flying around,” Berry said. “We were getting them out of what they wanted to do. We picked up the intensity, and they were just shook. They didn’t know what to do. And that’s what we have to make teams do, and that’s what we did tonight.”
UNC had allowed large second-half leads to slip away before. It happened twice the last two times it had played Notre Dame.
The Tar Heels were well aware, too, of what the Fighting Irish had done a day earlier against Duke.
“They were down 16 to Duke yesterday,” said Johnson, who finished with 12 points and seven rebounds. “We just wanted to keep playing. We know they’re a very capable team of coming back.
“We were up at their place the last time we played them and we just wanted to keep our foot on their neck and just keep winning.”
Said Paige: “Once we got a big lead, we weren’t losing it today.”
Pinson perhaps best described UNC’s 24-0 surge: “A run like that really kills a team,” he said.
UNC’s lead grew as large as 37 points. The dominant performance represented an atonement, of sorts, for the Tar Heels, who then waited to learn who’d they’d play for the ACC tournament championship.