Notre Dame men's basketball stuns No. 2 North Carolina

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Decked in gold and delirious, they came rolling out from the arena’s west end — sections four, five, six and seven — after watching Notre Dame roar back from what seemed an insurmountable deficit.

The unranked Irish, searching for something good to slingshot them through the final full month of college basketball’s regular season, delivered another big moment by digging deep Saturday against No. 2 North Carolina.

Unable to get much going in the first half, Notre Dame closed the gap, made a decisive late push and kept hitting clutch free throw after clutch free throw to grind out an 80-76 victory.

“Man, it’s a test of our resiliency,” said senior captain Zach Auguste. “We locked down. We couldn’t lay down for anybody.

“We just played great Notre Dame basketball.”

They also avoided losing a second straight game for the first time since 2013-14. Even when it looked bad, the Irish found a way to be good. No way were they going to go out like this. At home. In front of the ESPN College Gameday audience.

“Our physical and mental toughness was really a key for us,” coach Mike Brey said. “This is really big.

“Our program, when we have been under the bright lights and the big stage, we have flat-out delivered.”

Notre Dame trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half, was down nine at the break and still behind by 10 with just over 17 minutes remaining. But after erasing a nine-point deficit with just over 11 minutes remaining last March to beat these same Tar Heels and capture the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship, the Irish figured they had them right where they wanted them.

Again.

“This,” guard Demetrius Jackson said afterward, “is big-time.”

Notre Dame improved to 16-7, 7-4 in the ACC. North Carolina fell to 19-4, 8-2. The Irish have beaten the Tar Heels three straight times in three different venues.

Five Irish scored double figures led by Bonzie Colson and Jackson, who each had 19 points. Colson added 10 rebounds while Jackson simply refused to let a tough shooting night derail his dominance.

Jackson could get little to fall from the field in finishing 5-of-18 from the floor, 0-of-5 from 3. But when it came time to do it at the free throw line, Jackson simply wasn't going to miss.

Jackson went 9-of-9 from the foul line, including two big ones that put Notre Dame up three with 19.5 seconds remaining.

“Just really been working on my free throws and wanted to step up and knock those down,” he said. “I’ve always been a guy that does whatever it takes to help our team win games.”

As good as Jackson was at the line, he was just as good making sure the Irish protected the ball. Notre Dame turned it over only twice — once in each half — against the Carolina pressure.

How does THAT happen?

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Jackson said. “Just sharp. That’s the best way to describe it. Just sharp taking care of the ball with our passes.

“We were crisp.”

Making free throws became contagious for the Irish, who jumped into the bonus early (12:23 left in the second half) and just kept delivering. When it was over, Notre Dame had gone 31-of-38 (81.6 percent) from the foul line, including 19-of-24 in the second half.

Subtract Auguste’s 5-of-11, and the Irish went 26-of-27 from the foul line. Only Steve Vasturia missed and that was in the closing seconds.

Auguste’s misses included the final two with five seconds remaining. But he snatched the second rebound away from Brice Johnson, dribbled out the rest of the clock, and then promptly spiked the ball to the floor as the horn sounded. The celebration then was on as senior manager A.J. Meyer grabbed the game ball and raced off to the locker room.

The season’s first court storm followed. Freshman Rex Pflueger, whose defense on Tar Heel guard Marcus Paige was critical to the cause in the second half, liked being in the center of the mosh pit at first. And then he didn’t. He started to get hot.

“I enjoyed it for the moment, and then I was like, ‘OK, I need some water,’” Pflueger said. “I realized I was exhausted.”

Pflueger was worn out in hounding Paige. After going 4-of-5 from the floor in the first half, Paige was 3-of-7 the second.

“Getting stops the second half was everything,” Pflueger said. “We had to get stops. If we didn’t get stops, we were going to lose that game by 20.”

Instead, they won by four.

“Their coach did a heck of a lot better job of getting his guys to play with a great deal of intensity than I did,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. “I have to do a heck of a lot better job of getting my club to play with a lot more intensity than we did.”

After being so decidedly lopsided in the first half, the second 20 minutes eventually featured six ties in a span of less than five minutes. Notre Dame took a three-point lead with just over five minutes remaining on a Jackson fade jumper from the baseline. Notre Dame tied it at 48 with 12:23 remaining following a pair of V.J. Beachem free throws. Beachem had a chance to give the Irish their first lead next time down, but his 3 from the top of the key rattled around and out.

Beachem eventually delivered. With just over seven minutes remaining and 1-of-8 from the floor to that point, he dropped in a critical 3 to give the Irish a one-point lead. Big moment. Bigger shot.

“There was no thought process there at all,” Beachem said of his big shot. “Anytime someone doesn’t close out and give me the respect I think I deserve, I’m going to rise up and fire it.”

Notre Dame fell into a double-digit hole in the first half for the third time in its last four ACC games simply because the Irish couldn’t do what they usually do so well — run efficient offense. They connected on 28.1 percent of its shots in the first half, including 0-for-6 from 3. The home team trailed by as many as 15 following three straight Tar Heel 3-pointers, but quickly put together an 8-0 run. That allowed Notre Dame to get within nine, 39-30, at the break.

The Irish knew they would be better. Be themselves.

“Our shots would fall,” Auguste said. “We had to continue to rely on our defense, be confident in it for 40 minutes.”

Done.

NORTH CAROLINA (76): Joel Berry II 3-8 3-4 10, Kennedy Meeks 5-6 2-4 12, Marcus Paige 7-12 2-2 21, Brice Johnson 6-16 2-2 14, Justin Jackson 1-7 3-3 5, Theo Pinson 0-1 0-0 0, Isaiah Hicks 4-8 4-6 12, Kenny Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Luke Maye 0-0 0-0 0, Joel James 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 27-59 16-21 76.

NOTRE DAME (80): V.J. Beachem 2-10 4-4 10, Demetrius Jackson 5-18 9-9 19, Zach Auguste 5-11 5-11 15, Steve Vasturia 4-11 4-5 13, Bonzie Colson 7-12 5-5 19, Rex Pflueger 0-2 4-4 4, Austin Torres 0-0 0-0 0, Matt Ryan 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 23-66 31-38 80.

Halftime-North Carolina 39-30. 3-Point Goals-North Carolina 6-12 (Paige 5-8, Berry II 1-3, Jackson 0-1), Notre Dame 3-16 (Beachem 2-7, Vasturia 1-3, Ryan 0-1, Jackson 0-5). Fouled Out-None. Rebounds-North Carolina 41 (Johnson 14), Notre Dame 40 (Auguste, Colson 10). Assists-North Carolina 17 (Berry II 5), Notre Dame 9 (Vasturia 4). Total Fouls-North Carolina 27, Notre Dame 16. A-9,149.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame fans fill the court as they celebrate an 80-76 win against North Carolina.Tribune photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN