North Carolina

UNC’s fortunes turn in an instant in 90-82 ACC tournament title loss to Notre Dame

North Carolina’s Marcus Paige (5) and his teammates leaves the court following the Tar Heels’ 90-82 loss to Notre Dame in the championship game of the Atlantic Coast Conference Basketball Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum.
North Carolina’s Marcus Paige (5) and his teammates leaves the court following the Tar Heels’ 90-82 loss to Notre Dame in the championship game of the Atlantic Coast Conference Basketball Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum. rwillett@newsobserver.com

It all changed in 68 seconds or maybe in even less time than that. No one in the North Carolina locker room knew the exact moment it happened, only that it had happened – only that one moment they were in control and in the next an ACC tournament championship was slipping away.

“It's tough,” Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels' junior guard, said after his team's 90-82 defeat against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament championship game on Saturday night. “I'm probably never going to forget this.”

He went on about how UNC lost in the tournament championship game his freshman year, against Miami, but how this year, and on this night, the Tar Heels, the tournament's No. 5 seed, were more evenly matched with Notre Dame. He went on about UNC's nine-point lead, the momentum.

There were so many moments when it looked like the Tar Heels would end their night climbing a ladder and cutting down the nets and celebrating their first ACC tournament championship since 2008. One of those moments came with 17 ½ minutes to play when Paige made a 3-pointer that gave UNC its first lead of the second half. Another came a couple minutes later amid another Paige 3.

UNC led by seven then, with 15 minutes to play. The crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum – a crowd dominated by light blue – rose to its feet. The noise was deafening. The lead grew to nine points, and then UNC led by eight with about 9 ½ minutes to play.

And now here Paige and his teammates sat, sullen and quiet, after everything turned the other way.

“I'll probably never let this one go,” Paige said.

Notre Dame's decisive run began with a play that few might remember now, after all the others. Yet that's how it often is with game-turning moments: they're only visible in hindsight.

The Tar Heels led 64-56 with nine minutes, 19 seconds remaining when Isaiah Hicks, the sophomore forward, missed a free throw. Nineteen seconds later, Demetrius Jackson, the Fighting Irish guard, made a 3-pointer.

And then there was a UNC turnover and Notre Dame's Steve Vasturia made a shot and then there was another turnover and Vasturia made another shot, a 3-pointer that tied the game and then Paige missed one and Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton made one – another 3 to give his team a 67-64 lead.

And then Notre Dame never trailed again and UNC never recovered and its deficit became larger and larger: five points and then seven points and then 10 points, after another Connaughton 3, and then 12 points and then 14 – the Fighting Irish's largest lead.

The crowd had been gleeful but then it was silent, while UNC's title hopes evaporated. During the Fighting Irish's run the only sounds were the soft hush of disappointment and tempered cheers of the relatively small number of Notre Dame supporters who tried to make their voices heard. And that run?

It kept going and growing. During one stretch the Fighting Irish outscored the Tar Heels 24-2.

“They're still making shots,” Roy Williams, the UNC coach, said afterward.

Williams knew the fatigue factor would be brought up. Had his team, playing its fourth game in four days, simply tired? Had the Tar Heels, who were trying to become the first team to win the ACC tournament after playing four games in four days, just run out of energy?

That wasn't it, Williams said. And his players agreed.

A reporter asked Kennedy Meeks, the sophomore forward, about it in the locker room – about whether UNC had just worn down. Meeks shook his head and said, “No, no, no. Not at all.”

Citing fatigue, even if his players had been tired, would have been an excuse, anyway, Williams said. And there would be no excuses for UNC, which had played with so much poise in victories earlier in the week against Louisville and Virginia. That went missing on Saturday night, though.

Williams called a timeout after Connaughton, who finished with 20 points, gave Notre Dame that 67-64 lead. By then the Fighting Irish had scored 11 points in 68 seconds and the crowd was quiet and the Tar Heels were tense and Williams sensed his team needed a moment to gather itself.

So his players huddled around him and he tried to calm them. The timeout ended, and UNC committed a turnover on its first possession, and then a turnover on its next possession, and then another on the next possession after that.

“When a team starts making shots and going on a run, you have to take care of the ball better, and you have to try to get quality shots to stifle that run, to stop their run,” Paige said. “And we turned it over. So that leads to run outs and easier 3-point opportunities for them.

“And that's the biggest mistake we made in the game, is not stopping that run with quality execution.”

The Tar Heels made their share of mistakes late. They committed six of their 13 turnovers during a span of a little less than five minutes, and that sequence wasn't unlike others that doomed UNC during second-half collapses.

The breakdowns on Saturday night, though, felt different if only because Notre Dame seemed to take advantage of all of them, and because the Fighting Irish so forcefully seized control. One moment Notre Dame was trailing by eight, fighting momentum and the wishes of nearly an entire building full of people. And in the next Notre Dame had the lead.

The defeat will again raise questions about the Tar Heels' toughness, their fortitude. Their ability to close out games, which they did against Louisville and against Virginia just days ago. Williams spent less time criticizing his team's lack of poise than he did crediting his opposition.

And in the locker room, Justin Jackson, the freshman forward, responded with a “heck no” when asked if questions about toughness – or a lack of it – were again appropriate after this.

“Everybody wants to say we're soft, we don't have enough toughness,” Jackson said. “We made it to the championship. We didn't come out with a victory, but we made it to the championship.”

Which was, perhaps, an accomplishment for a team that entered the ACC tournament with no shortage of questions. Ones about its ability to finish. About its health. About whether Paige, a preseason All-American, could rediscover his form from a season ago.

With about 9 ½ minutes to play the Tar Heels seemed headed toward their 18th ACC tournament championship. It would have been among their most improbable, and UNC would have become the first No. 5 seed to win it.

And it would have been a storybook ending. For UNC, which has labored this season amid injuries and second-half meltdowns, but especially for Williams, who in a lot of ways has endured the most difficult season of his career.

It began with him answering questions about what he knew of a long-running academic and athletic scandal that called into question his integrity. In December, Williams lost one of his closest friends, Ted Seagroves, a longtime neighbor who died of cancer.

Less than two months later, Williams returned with his team from a victory at Boston College and learned that Dean Smith, his mentor and the man who had given him his start in college coaching, had died. Williams has spent most of his adult life trying to live up to the standard Smith set for him.

“It's been a tough year,” Williams said on Saturday. “I've had some personal things that have been really tough. Coach Smith, my best friend in town, all those kind of things.”

He spoke of the injuries, too, and not knowing who might be available to practice on a given day. He referenced “the stuff that we've got going on around campus,” which has been his way of describing the fallout of a scandal that UNC has been unable to put in the past.

“You get tired of dealing with all that,” Williams said.

Yet here he was on Saturday night, 9 ½ minutes away from a championship that likely would have been among the most satisfying of his career. It looked for a while then that, at last, after so much turmoil, both personal and professional, some good was coming Williams way.

Even then, with UNC leading, he said he never allowed himself to think about what victory might feel like. He said he told his players, though, that they could be in for a “great, great time,” and it looked like they might be until everything changed in an instant that was only clear after looking back.

Carter: 919-829-8944;

Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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