As I wrote in my preview, going into this game there was a possibility that UNC could be thinking about this weekend more than the game at hand. In the first half that was definitely not the case, but in the second twenty minutes, the squad was certainly not focused on the opponents in the Dean Dome. In the end #14/#14 North Carolina (23 & 7 ~ 13 & 4) defeated Notre Dame (15 & 16 ~ 6 & 12) on Senior Night by the score of 63 to 61, but it was definitely not the performance we have come to expect from the Heels in the previous eleven games. However, good or bad, in the end this is a 12 ACC game winning streak, the longest ever since UNC had a 14 conference game winning streak back in `86-`87.
The positive to this is that head coach Roy Williams‘ squad gutted it out and came out with a win in the end. No doubt that two months ago this would have been a loss for Carolina with the way Notre Dame stormed back. Thanks to the win the four seniors, who all started the game, were able to enjoy the moment, both before, during and after the game. Without a doubt the first half was well played by the Heels, who went into the locker room with a 41 to 27 lead.
However, from the get go of the second half it just felt different, as everything that had been done right by Carolina was not there and Notre Dame was using the pick and roll to score at will. The Irish cut the lead down quickly as they outscored the Tar Heels 10-1 to begin the second part of the game. It was less than six minutes into the second part of the game when the guests took the lead 47 to 46. With half the period left the Heels were up by one, 50 to 49. From then on UNC was able to keep the Irish under control, but without being able to pull away themselves. When you think that Notre Dame was without their starting center, Garrick Sherman, who in the first match up scored 17 points against Carolina, this could have easily been a loss last night.
As I have said over and over on this blog, on web boards, and anywhere else I talk about UNC basketball, this squad will go only as far as its two leaders, sophomore combo guard Marcus Paige and junior James McAdoo, can elevate them to. While McAdoo came within a rebound of a double double, with 14 points and nine boards, Paige struggled as Notre Dame clamped down on him, giving him no room to shoot. But leaders, or should I say winners, find a way to make it happen for their team. And that is exactly what the sophomore guard did last night, blocking what could have been the game tying shot from Notre Dame with two seconds on the clock.
“There was something about the way he was dribbling that made me think he was going all the way to the rim,” Paige said of Atkins. “You could see it in his eyes.”
For fifth year senior Leslie McDonald it was not a great night, five points in all, hampered by fouls for most of the second half. Probably not the individual performance he wanted to leave the Dean Dome crowd with. Sophomore small forward J.P. Tokoto was perfect last night, going 5 for 5 from the field and 1 for 1 from the charity stripe. His eleven points made him the only other Tar Heel, along with McAdoo, to score in double figures. If there is a blemish to give to the sophomore is that he was not a quick to come over and help out from the weak side when the Heels were on defense. Sophomore power forward Brice Johnson once again had one of those games where he played well at times, followed up by not so great moments. On offense he scored nine points, but could have been in double figures if not for a couple of gimme’s he missed. On the defensive side he was burnt the most by Notre Dame’s pick and roll.
To point out, during the second half, as the game went back and forth, North Carolina had a breakaway going, with Tokoto passing off the ball to freshman point guard Nate Britt, and as the floor general was going up for the layup a Notre Dame player hit him hard, but without being a flagrant foul. Britt would come back in the game, but could not shoot the free throws, so coach Brey was allowed to pick which player on the court could shoot them. That to me is the worst rule in college basketball. Your team puts the opposing team down by possibly hurting a player and then you get to hurt them again by choosing the worst shooter to take the two shots? I doubt Jay Bilas reads this blog, but if he does, get on that bandwagon Sir, and let’s get rid of that rule!
“I said Saturday to have a really good year you’ve got to win some games ugly,” Williams said. ”I’m tired of winning games ugly. … I really thought we’d have a tremendous sense of urgency today. We played so much harder at practice yesterday than we did in the game today. We learned those lessons earlier in the season but we’ve let them slip by us here the last couple of games.”
Carolina’s 22 points after intermission marked the fewest pts scored in a half in a win since scoring 20 in the 2nd half against Maryland on Jan. 19, 2013. On the other hand fans should not have worried much, since UNC is 17 and 0 this season when having the lead after twenty minutes. This game could have also been a lot less of a nail biter if North Carolina got their job done on the free throw line. As a team the Heels went 10 for 22, the fifth time this season they have shot below 50%, with the other four all being losses.
In the end this was maybe the outcome for North Carolina going into the last game of the regular season against arch-rival Duke. The Heels won the game, but did not play a full game, and so now they will have time to think about it and re-focus as they await the trip to Durham Saturday night.