Sometimes a win feels like a loss. It looks the same in the standings, but it doesn’t always feel right.
North Carolina had one of those games on Saturday night against a stubborn but undermanned Notre Dame team.
It goes down as a win, 69-68 on the road, after Notre Dame’s T.J. Gibbs had two chances in the final seconds to make it a loss. That doesn’t mean the Tar Heels (14-4, 3-2 ACC) are thrilled.
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“We can’t play like that,” said senior Joel Berry, whose free throws provided the winning margin with 7.1 seconds left.
“We can’t until the end, for everybody to start boxing out and for everybody to start getting down and playing defense. We have to do that from the jump so we don’t have to get in that situation.”
UNC was down 66-60 with 5:58 left before the Heels tightened up on defense – Notre Dame didn’t make another field goal – and on the boards.
It was Berry’s rebound, a heads-up play by senior amidst a late-game scramble, of a Sterling Manley miss that set up the game-winning points for UNC.
For those 6 minutes, the Heels played the way you have to play to win in March. The way they have played so many times the past two seasons in getting to the championship game twice.
It’s the first 34 minutes that left the players feeling lucky and coach Roy Williams, by his own admission, “dumbfounded.”
Notre Dame, without its two best players, out-rebounded UNC 45-37 and had a fully healthy UNC lineup on the ropes.
Star forward Bonzie Colson watched in street clothes and a protective boot on his left foot. Senior point guard Matt Farrell suited up and went through warmups but missed his third straight game with an ankle injury.
That’s nearly 50 percent (37.3 points per game) of Notre Dame’s offense reduced to spectators. Or to put it another way: How many ACC teams could UNC stretch like that without Berry or Luke Maye, who led the Heels with 18 points?
This is not a point that was lost on the hyper-competitive Berry, who finished with 15 points.
“I know we got this win but at the same time you can’t squeak out a win like that,” Berry said. “You got to think, they didn’t have their best two players out there on the court and we barely won. We just can’t have that.”
Sophomore guard Nikola Djogo, who entered the game with eight points in the first four ACC games, provided some unexpected offense for the Irish. He made three 3-pointers and scored 12 points.
Senior forward Martinas Geben, in a back-and-forth matchup with Maye and UNC’s other bigs, had 14 points and nine rebounds.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is known for his team’s offensive efficiency and developing players, but this was more along the lines of sorcery. It’s like he has borrowed some of the ghosts from across the parking lot at Notre Dame’s football stadium.
Williams said Brey has done an “amazing” job.
“What he has done is give them the plan and hope that they can still be successful,” Williams said. “They’ve gone from a very efficient offensive team to a rebounding, defending team.”
The rebounding margin irked Williams. It was only the second time this season the Heels have been on the wrong end of Williams’ favorite stat (the whitewash loss to Michigan State back in November was the other).
Williams was frustrated after the game. He certainly didn’t talk like the coach of the winning team.
“Notre Dame played so hard,” Williams said. “I thought they played harder than us, I thought they played smarter than us. We weren’t as tough as we needed to be.”
Williams’ standards can be difficult to meet but the players understood their coach’s frustration.
“Coach is always going to expect perfection out of us,” Maye said. “We played nowhere near as good as we can play.”
Still, UNC did find a way to win. Berry’s free throws, Maye’s scoring, Manley’s hustle and Theo Pinson took a late charge on Gibbs – it all added up in the end.
Those final 6 minutes were good enough for this game, but Berry knows it will take more for UNC to get to where it wants to go.
“We can’t wait until the end, when we’re down and desperate, to do the things (the coaches) want us to do from the start of the game,” Berry said.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio