This was the North Carolina everyone expected to see in November, right off the hop. This was the standard to which the Tar Heels have been held all season, and failed to meet until now.
They always said they had this in them. Finally, here it was. Better March than never.
This was everything: Marcus Paige announcing his return not only with his third 3-pointer of the first half, but by yelling “I’m back!” after he hit it; North Carolina shoving around the same Notre Dame team that shell-shocked the Heels not only in the title game in Greensboro last year but in South Bend this year.
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So as has been the case every year since 1996, either North Carolina or Duke will play for the ACC championship. The Tar Heels look ready to win it for the first time since 2008 after Friday’s 78-47 win over the Irish. They grabbed this one at the end of the first half and never let go – literally, when Justin Jackson and Matt Ryan both latched on to a loose ball until officials pried them apart.
All those questions, about Paige throughout a disappointing senior year, about the Tar Heels lacking “toughness” – the Tar Heels had all the answers Friday.
And not just Friday. In an emotional Senior Night victory over Syracuse, against Duke last Saturday, against Pittsburgh on Thursday, and again against Notre Dame, the Tar Heels have dug in and shown resolve. They have unleashed relentless offensive attacks, turned smiles into snarls, played determined defense.
It was all building toward this comprehensive dismantling of Notre Dame, a truly complete game against an opponent that had beaten them three straight times by a combined 13 points. North Carolina held the ACC’s No. 1 offense to season lows in both points and offensive efficiency.
Brice Johnson, whose defensive acumen was once so lacking that Roy Williams expressed a desire to merge him into the same body as the more reliable Desmond Hubert, called it the best team defensive performance of his entire North Carolina career.
“I thought their defense, from what I watched, was a different level than I’ve seen all season,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.
Maybe the Tar Heels can play better than this. They might not need to play better than this.
“We’re definitely hitting our stride,” Paige said, “but I still don’t know what our peak is, which is probably a good thing.”
To be sure, some of North Carolina’s explosiveness to close out the first half was provoked by circumstances that will not be repeated Saturday. Notre Dame needed overtime to beat Duke Thursday, with all five starters playing 35 minutes or more. And with both Johnson and Kennedy Meeks in foul trouble, the Tar Heels went with Isaiah Hicks alone inside for almost all of the 18-0 run going into halftime.
That small lineup was a perfect foil for Notre Dame’s four-out offense, but the Tar Heels kept it going with Meeks and Johnson back on the floor on the other side of halftime, getting the run to a shocking 24-0 before the Irish finally put an end to it.
It was awfully loud, Greensboro loud, when Theo Pinson hustled the ball up the court to Joel Berry for a ceiling-scraping 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer after a missed Notre Dame free throw, but it was Paige’s play that really got the crowd into it.
A stepback 3-pointer in the first half might have been his flashiest individual play of the season; in the second half, he swatted a Matt Farrell pass into the Notre Dame band. He finished with 16 points, seven assists and no turnovers.
“I guess you could call it the old me, but I didn’t think I ever left,” Paige said.
It’s been a trying season for Paige, an up-and-down season at times for the Tar Heels. As it reaches its end, they are finding new answers to old questions at the best possible moment.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock