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UNC vs. Notre Dame: Four things to watch

North Carolina coach Roy Williams and Kennedy Meeks smile during the first half.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams and Kennedy Meeks smile during the first half. rwillett@newsobserver.com

North Carolina plays against Notre Dame on Friday at 7 p.m. in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. With a victory the Tar Heels would advance to the tournament championship game for the fourth time in the past five seasons.

Notre Dame won the only regular-season game between these teams with an 80-76 victory in South Bend on Feb. 6. Here are some pregame thoughts on what to watch during the rematch between the No. 1 seed Tar Heels and No. 4 seed Fighting Irish in the ACC tournament semifinals:

1. If UNC gets a lead, can it maintain it and hold it?

The past two times UNC played Notre Dame, the Tar Heels led by double-digits in the second half only to lose the game. UNC led Notre Dame by as many as 15 points in the first half earlier this season and led by double-digits, briefly, in the second half before Notre Dame used an 11-2 run to tie the game at 49 with about 12 ½ minutes to play. In the ACC tournament championship game last season, UNC led by 11 in the second half before the Fighting Irish used a 26-3 run to take control of that game. So if the Tar Heels build a lead on Friday night, can they keep it?

2. Defending Notre Dame’s spread and drive.

In football the spread offense has provided a lot of thrills for UNC fans. In basketball, though, Notre Dame has used something of a spread offense to terrorize the Tar Heels the past two seasons. In UNC’s past two games against the Fighting Irish, Notre Dame has erased those aforementioned deficits by spreading UNC’s man-to-man defense and beat the Tar Heels with penetration. Notre Dame’s use of a small lineup in both of those games was a real problem for the Tar Heels, who couldn’t match up defensively. One of the main priorities for the Tar Heels will be better defending Demetrius Jackson, the Notre Dame point guard who scored 19 points in the first meeting between these teams.

3. Fouls, fouls, fouls.

Generally speaking, UNC has done an OK job this season of keeping opponents off the free throw line – and of getting there more often. But the Tar Heels didn’t do that against Notre Dame on Feb. 6. In fact, the opposite happened: Notre Dame attempted 38 free throws and made 31 of them.

Meanwhile, UNC went 16-for-21 from the line. The free throw discrepancy played a tremendous role in deciding the outcome. It also reflected the difficulty UNC had in avoiding fouls, which reflected the Tar Heels’ struggles in defending Notre Dame’s smaller lineup. During the regular-season game at Notre Dame, UNC committed 27 fouls to the Fighting Irish’s 16. Marcus Paige, Joel Berry, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks all finished the game with four fouls. UNC has to find a way to defend Notre Dame without fouling.

4. Can UNC force some turnovers?

The short answer: The Tar Heels probably won’t force all that many. They managed to force two turnovers the first time they played Notre Dame. That didn’t mean, necessarily, that UNC played poorly defensively – though it certainly had its problems against the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame, though, is simply one of the best teams in the country when it comes to limiting turnovers. The Fighting Irish turns it over on 14.5 percent of its possessions, which ranks sixth nationally according to kenpom.com. Even so, the Tar Heels will make it a priority to force most turnovers on Friday night. Notre Dame outscored UNC 19-0 in points off of turnovers the first time these teams played and that discrepancy, like the one at the free throw line, was one of the key differences in the game.

So there you have it. What to watch in the ACC tournament semifinals. We’ll see you at the Verizon Center.

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