UNC finding edge, tired of questions about toughness

It was but one moment that will ultimately be forgotten amid everything else that happened during North Carolina's 78-47 victory against Notre Dame on Friday night in the ACC tournament semifinals.

And yet in some ways it was a defining moment. Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels' senior guard, had just made a 3-pointer to give UNC a 37-22 lead late in the first half. Not long after, down on the other end of the court, Justin Jackson found himself in the middle of a scrum, his arms wrapped around the ball.

He wasn't letting go. Jackson, UNC's sophomore forward, was trying to secure a loose ball with about one minute remaining in the first half. Notre Dame's Matt Ryan was attempting to do the same. They met face-to-face near the baseline, neither player relinquishing his grip.

Whistles blew. Words were exchanged. There were some light bumps, some small shoves. Members of both teams ran over to join the scene, which escalated briefly before being diffused.

Joel Berry, the Tar Heels' sophomore guard, described it as “a little scuffle.” It was a moment in which UNC showed some physical toughness and a bit of an edge. Nearby, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams was standing and clapping.

“It showed people that we're not going to back down,” Berry said. “You might try to come at us, but as a team we're not going to back out. I'm glad he didn't let go of the ball because that showed that we're here, and we're ready.”

Asked about the moment later Jackson said he didn't let go in part because he was thinking about those questions that have often surrounded the Tar Heels – the ones about their toughness and their fight. He thought about those things in that moment, tied up with Ryan.

“You get sick of it,” Jackson said. “Because nobody wants to be called soft, or not tough enough.”

There were a couple of moments like that for UNC on Friday night, ones it which it found a way to show some toughness. One was that tie-up involving Jackson.

Another was when Berry and Demetrius Jackson, the Notre Dame guard, exchanged some words in the first half amid Berry's physical defense.

“I'm just trying to get this team going to where we can come out with the intensity on defense,” Berry said. “If we can get after people like that and have people getting shook up like that, I think that can help out a lot.”