Defense delivers big road win for Notre Dame at North Carolina

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Crippled by a collection of big plays that didn't go its way Monday, Notre Dame carried something different, something it didn’t have almost all of last year, into the closing seconds against No. 18 North Carolina.

A confidence to close.

Just when it seemed like nothing was going right for the No. 13 Irish, everything did. With a massive Atlantic Coast Conference road victory there for the taking, the Irish snatched it. And they did it with defense.

Unable to hold a double-digit lead in the second half as it started to run on fumes, Notre Dame mustered two big stops at big moments in the final nine seconds to weather a furious Tar Heels rally and secure a 71-70 victory.

Notre Dame’s defense forced North Carolina to miss its last eight shots over the final 2:44.

“This is just really special,” said Irish sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson. “We do it all the time – game situations in practice, defense to win it. Defense wins championships and we had to get a stop on the defensive end.”

Bad weather back home forced the Notre Dame traveling party to spend an additional night in the “triangle” area. But nobody associated with the Irish seemed to mind. It was the first-ever victory for Notre Dame in four visits to Chapel Hill. Consecutive win No. 11 moved Notre Dame to 15-1 overall, 3-0 in the ACC.

“This is a great win for us and we’re definitely a great team,” said junior power forward Zach Auguste. “We’re definitely going to make a big statement in the ACC this year. We have that edge to us.”

It’s the first time that Notre Dame has been 3-0 in a conference season. Didn’t happen in the Big East, and certainly didn’t happen in its first season in the ACC, when the Irish limped off with a 6-12 record. But almost as soon as last season ended, the seeds for this season were planted. Want to be better? Better defend.

“We’ve made great progress there,” coach Mike Brey said. “When we had to get key stops, we really dug in.”

When the Irish closed regular-season play at the Smith Center last March, they left the building with the same number of wins they’ve registered this season – 15. For all the guys in the blue jerseys have accomplished in the past seven-plus weeks, nobody was surprised.


This may have come as a shock around Tobacco Road and throughout college basketball, but about 50 hours after winning in double overtime in South Bend, Notre Dame expected to win its first true road game of the year against one of the league’s gold-standard schools.


“We were like, ‘We’ve got this,’” Auguste said. “We’re not happy that we won. We knew we were going to win this game and that’s what we did.”

Auguste figured in all three of the game-deciding plays down the stretch.

Last one first. Two missed free throws by Steve Vasturia after an Irish defensive stop gave North Carolina the ball down one, 71-70, and 3.7 seconds remaining. Following a timeout, the Tar Heels inbounded from under the Irish basket, advanced to halfcourt, then burned another timeout with 1.4 seconds remaining to set up the final shot.

Carolina coach Roy Williams said afterward that guard Marcus Paige was the third option on the play, but the league’s preseason player of the year found the ball in his hands and swarmed by Auguste and a host of Irish on the far sideline. His prayer 3, hoisted over a host of Irish arms, never had a chance.

“I didn’t think we were as organized or solid as we used to be,” Williams said. “Give Notre Dame’s defense some credit; they weren’t just running around out there.”

The previous Tar Heel possession, Paige came up short on a drive thanks to some Auguste interior defense. On a night when Notre Dame again was shredded on the backboard (Carolina had a 43-26 rebounding advantage including 21 on the offensive end), Auguste was determined to take a stand.

“Coach said that we needed somebody on the glass and I took that as a challenge upon myself,” Auguste said. “I was determined to impact the game as much as I could.”

Auguste score 18 points and had six rebounds, but his last basket gave ND its edge. He worked free down low on a Pat Connaughton miss to drop in a bucket for the 71-70 Irish lead with 76 seconds left.

“I carved out some space and saw the shot go up and fought for it,” Auguste said. “I went up strong and that’s what helped us.”

The Irish survived despite continued struggles from the foul line. After making their first 15, the visitors missed their final four of the final 4:59. Connaughton and Vasturia, two guys Brey would prefer at the line in a close game, each went 0-for-2.

But that, and the fact that the Irish staggered through a 10:04 stretch without a field goal late in the second half – Auguste’s last one finally snapped that streak – while committing some costly turnovers, didn’t matter much. The Irish knew they still would find a way.

“That’s the maturity level of this team,” Connaughton said. “That’s where I wanted this team to grow and that’s where we have grown.”

The Irish went 1-8 in the ACC on the road last season and 1-9 in overall road games.

Irish guard Jerian Grant fouled out with 2:07 remaining and the Irish up one. When Kennedy Meeks hit the free throws after Grant’s fifth foul, the Tar Heels had their first lead in seemingly forever. North Carolina had last led less than two minutes in when the score was 4-2.

Notre Dame led by 10 with 11:30 remaining.

“That was really a step forward for this group, to do it without Jerian,” Brey said.

Needing a good start in its first true road game of the season, Notre Dame got it – and then some. The Irish connected on six of their first seven shots and shredded the league’s top 3-point field goal percentage defense team. Notre Dame hit four of its first seven attempts from the arc to open a double-digit lead (25-15) less than 10 minutes in.

The Irish were seemingly on cruise control when Jackson drove baseline and delivered a right-handed tomahawk dunk to give the visitors a 29-20 lead. But the Tar Heels went small and ripped off a pair of 6-0 runs, the second of which sliced the Irish lead to one. Notre Dame labored more than six minutes without a field goal following Jackson’s drive before a Vasturia left-handed layup with 1:40 remaining helped right the ship. A Jackson corner 3 helped the Irish take a 38-34 lead at intermission.

Notre Dame opened 11-of-17 from the field, then made only two of its final 10. Grant led everyone with six assists and added three rebounds in the first half but was 0-of-6 from the field.

Still, every time the Tar Heels threatened, the Irish had answers. On offense. On defense.

“We held off a lot of runs and did what we needed to do to escape,” Brey said. “We were really poised.”

NOTRE DAME (15-1)Zach Auguste 6-10 6-6 18, Demetrius Jackson 6-11 1-1 15, Jerian Grant 1-8 6-6 8, Pat Connaughton 5-11 2-4 16, Steve Vasturia 2-6 0-2 5, Austin Torres 0-0 0-0 0, V.J. Beachem 3-4 0-0 9, Austin Burgett 0-0 0-0 0, Martinas Geben 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-50 15-19 71.

NORTH CAROLINA (11-4)Kennedy Meeks 3-8 6-6 12, Brice Johnson 3-11 3-4 9, J.P. Tokoto 4-9 3-4 12, Justin Jackson 2-4 2-2 6, Marcus Paige 6-17 1-2 15, Nate Britt 0-4 2-2 2, Theo Pinson 3-5 0-0 7, Joel Berry II 1-2 0-0 2, Desmond Hubert 0-0 0-0 0, Isaiah Hicks 2-2 1-5 5, Joel James 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 24-65 18-25 70.

Halftime--Notre Dame 38-34. 3-Point Goals--Notre Dame 10-23 (Connaughton 4-7, Beachem 3-4, Jackson 2-5, Vasturia 1-3, Grant 0-4), North Carolina 4-16 (Paige 2-8, Pinson 1-2, Tokoto 1-2, Jackson 0-2, Britt 0-2). Fouled Out--Grant, Meeks. Rebounds--Notre Dame 26 (Connaughton 9), North Carolina 43 (Pinson 8). Assists--Notre Dame 14 (Grant 8), North Carolina 10 (Paige, Tokoto 2). Total Fouls--Notre Dame 19, North Carolina 17. A--20,604. | (574) 235-6153

Zach Auguste and Notre Dame beat North Carolina twice last season, including the school's first-ever victory in Chapel Hill, N.C.AP File Photo/GERRY BROOME