On the back end of its third game in five days, North Carolina was about to hit a wall.
Notre Dame had cut what was a 10-point UNC lead down to one and the game could have gone either way.
Senior Theo Pinson made sure it was the right way for UNC. The do-everything senior provided the juice the 14th-ranked Tar Heels needed to complete a unique ACC sweep with an 83-66 win over the Fighting Irish.
“We were up one in our home building, there was no point to be like, ‘Oh, man, I’m so tired. We played three games in five days,’ ” Pinson said. “I was like, let’s just fight through this game.”
That’s what Pinson did with nine of his16 points after Notre Dame (15-11, 5-8 ACC) had turned up the game pressure. Pinson added 10 rebounds and five assists for the Heels (20-7, 9-5), who have won four straight in February after three-game losing streak to end January.
“I think we’re just starting to hit at the right time,” said senior guard Joel Berry, who had a game-high 21 points.
After beating Duke on Thursday, N.C. State on the road on Saturday and Notre Dame on Monday, Berry was actually ready for more basketball. UNC was the only ACC team that had a three-game, five-day stretch on its conference schedule. It was the first time since the 1979-80 season that UNC’s schedule had been set up that way.
“Maybe we should play more games when we have back-to-back-to-back games like that because we’ve been playing some pretty good basketball,” Berry said.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said the schedule might have actually helped UNC.
“Sometimes people look like it’s a disadvantage that they played three games in five days,” Brey said. “The players love it and they’re in a good rhythm. Sometimes when you’re playing well, you don’t want to mess with it in practice. I think they really found a great rhythm in this stretch.”
Even after the three wins, UNC coach Roy Williams wasn’t quite ready to agree with Brey.
“I don’t like it,” Williams said. “I hope it never happens to us again but I didn’t treat it like that. I treated it as an opportunity. We’re the only team in the league that can win three games in five days, until you get to the tournament.”
It didn’t even really matter that junior forward Luke Maye had an off game. Maye, who had a career-high 33 points in Saturday’s win at N.C. State, was held to eight on Monday.
The Tar Heels led 56-46 with 13 minutes left and then hit a wall. Forwards Martinas Geben (18 points) and John Mooney (18 points) were able to exploit UNC’s defense inside and out. Mooney hit six 3-pointers, five in the first half, after Geben went to the bench after just 3 minutes with two fouls.
“Early in the game, we wanted to get Geben in foul trouble,” Williams said. “The guy they bring in for him makes five 3s out of five attempts. So sometimes you shouldn’t wish for things.”
T.J. Gibbs followed up Mooney’s sixth 3 with a 3 of his own at 9:38 in the second half that cut UNC’s lead down to 58-57.
Pinson responded on UNC’s next possession with a pair of free throws. Berry and Pinson followed a dunk by Geben to make it 65-59. Cam Johnson, who had 13 points, brought the Smith Center crowd to life with a dunk over Notre Dame guard Rex Pflueger.
Pinson followed Johnson’s dunk with a three-point play and then a circus layup to stretch UNC’s margin to 72-63. By the time UNC was done, it was a 26-6 run.
“I just wanted to keep going, keep attacking and make plays,” Pinson said.
He did just that and now UNC will get a rest and a chance for a few days to enjoy its winning streak.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio