Analysis: This time it's personal for Notre Dame, North Carolina

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

PHILADELPHIA — Evidence of everything was supposed to be stashed away somewhere in a dark corner of the Notre Dame men’s basketball office for the next few months.

Lock it away.

If and when the Irish needed inspiration or motivation, say during spring instructional sessions or summer conditioning, maybe even as a primer to prepare for the 2016-17 Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, video eventually could be produced and put on display.

Remember what happened that Friday night in March in downtown Washington? Against that team? On that stage? No? Well, let’s have a look…

Look at the carelessness with the ball and the 17 turnovers. Look at the inability to put a body on somebody and the (-18) rebounding disadvantage. Look at the other guys playing loose and fiercely focused as they suffocate passing lanes and take off on a big lead before winning by a ridiculous 37 points.

Look ...

For Notre Dame to win the East Region championship and get to its first Final Four since 1978, it must avoid a repeat of that nightmare against that same team Sunday (8:49 p.m., TBS) at Wells Fargo Center. Standing between No. 6 seed Notre Dame (24-11) and a second visit to the Final Four is top seed North Carolina (31-6).

The same Tar Heel team perhaps playing better than anyone still left in the NCAA Tournament. The same Tar Heel team that toyed with the Irish in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. That same Tar Heel team many believe is simply unbeatable.

When the Irish left Verizon Center that night, they figured they’d seen enough of North Carolina for the next nine, 10, maybe 11 months. Instead, 16 days after absorbing the epic beatdown, the Irish get a chance to pick themselves up off the canvas and try it again.

Cue the theme music of Philadelphia favorite (fictitious) son/boxer who did much of the same.

Yo, Adrian! ...

If Notre Dame is to extend its dream run through the NCAA Tournament, it has to get past that 31-point pounding and go through North Carolina.

“What else can you ask for?” said junior guard Steve Vasturia. “Nobody as a competitor or a player wants to get smoked out of the gym like that.

“We’ve got a chance to go to the Final Four and they’re standing in our way. We’ve got to do everything we can to get past them.”

No additional buttons need pushing. The Irish remember. That’s enough.

“It motivates you more than anything to play again,” said sophomore Bonzie Colson. “It just comes down to being a basketball player and showing heart and showing passion.”

To be better Sunday than they were earlier this month, the Irish have to be better in the backcourt. Last time out, guards Demetrius Jackson and Vasturia struggled to make shots (1-of-16 combined), struggled to take care of the ball (five turnovers), struggled to get efficient offense going (30 percent shooting).

It was on them. They knew it then. They know it now.

“We,” Vasturia said, “kind of let it unravel.”

Yet, for as easy as North Carolina made it look last time out in ripping off a staggering 24-0 run and prohibiting Notre Dame from any points for nearly 10 minutes, it’s the guys in Carolina blue that believe they have a score still to settle.

The Tar Heels remember. They remember letting a 15-point lead get away and losing at Purcell Pavilion in early February. They remember when this Irish core celebrated winning the 2015 ACC Tournament championship on Tobacco Road. Remember that Notre Dame won for the first time – in school history – back in Chapel Hill in January 2015.

Remember the Irish have won three of the last four in the series.

The Tar Heels believe payback has just begun. There are scores still to settle, debts still to pay.

“We gotta get some revenge,” said Tar Heels guard Joel Berry. “They still have a little edge on us.”

The Irish also may have an edge in terms of mental toughness. Brey believes no team still trying to get to Houston is better battle-tested than his group. The Irish have had to fight for their NCAA Tournament lives each of the first three times out while the Tar Heels have breezed.

Still, if the Irish aren’t careful, aren’t good with the ball, aren’t efficient in their movement, aren’t locked in defensively, North Carolina will pounce. And the Tar Heels will keep running, keep defending, keep coming and won’t stop until they’re on their way to another Final Four.

North Carolina is expected to bully Notre Dame right off Broad Street. But the Irish were counted out after falling behind to Michigan, Stephen F. Austin and Wisconsin.

And here they still are. The Irish aren’t given much of a chance, but they believe as big as the odds, they still have something big left to offer.

“We need some guys to have all-time nights,” Brey said. “Crazier stuff’s happened, especially with our guys.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

North Carolina's Joel Berry II, left, and Marcus Paige, right, pressure Notre Dame guard Demtrius Jackson during North Carolina's ACC Tourney rout of the Irish on March 11. (AP Photo/STEVE HELBER)

NCAA Tournament

East Region

Championship

WHO: No. 6 seed Notre Dame (24-11) vs. No. 1 North Carolina (31-6).

WHERE: Wells Fargo Center (19,500), Philadelphia.

WHEN: Sunday at 8:49 p.m.

TV: TBS.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

WORTH NOTING: Marcus Paige scored 21 points with a school record-tying six 3-pointers and Brice Johnson added 21 points and 10 rebounds as top seed North Carolina beat No. 5 Indiana, 101-86, in Friday’s late semifinal. The Tar Heels held an opponent under 50 percent shooting (41 percent) for the 28th consecutive game. They also made a season-high 11 3-pointers. … The Tar Heels have won eight in a row and 10 of their last 11. That run includes a 78-47 victory over Notre Dame in an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinal. It was the most lopsided loss for coach Mike Brey in 16 seasons at Notre Dame. … Prior to that game, the Irish had won three straight over the Tar Heels, including an 80-76 victory Feb. 6 in South Bend. Notre Dame committed only two turnovers. … North Carolina leads the all-time series 19-7, including 12-4 at neutral sites. … This is the fourth time the schools have met in the NCAA Tournament and first since a 74-68 North Carolina victory on March 19, 1987 in East Rutherford, N.J. … Notre Dame has won its three NCAA tournament games by a total of 13 points … The winner of this game moves on to meet the winner of Sunday’s Midwest Region championship between fellow ACC schools Virginia and Syracuse in the Final Four at Houston’s NRG Stadium.

WORTH QUOTING: “We’re playing at a high level; we’re playing poised. We’re fighting. Our toughness, our edge is carrying us through this tournament.”

- Notre Dame senior power forward Zach Auguste.