Destiny disappoints Notre Dame in East Region finale

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

PHILADELPHIA – This was a team that believed the deeper it danced through the madness of March, the more it was their destiny to get to the Final Four for the first time since 1978.

It was simply meant to happen.

But destiny had other party plans for Notre Dame late Sunday in the NCAA Tournament East Region championship game at Wells Fargo Center.

Destiny found someone it wanted to dance with more, someone that may actually have the biggest prize of all when the music and the madness eventually cease.

Top seed North Carolina (32-6) simply was too much to handle for No. 6 Notre Dame (24-12), which saw its season end in the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season following an 88-74 loss.

A year ago, there were few tears in the locker room in Cleveland after coming close against Kentucky in the Elite Eight. That Irish team was too spent to be sad. There were plenty of tears late Sunday night.

“This one hurts just a little bit more,” said swingman V.J. Beachem.

Hurts because the Irish may have lost more than just a game.

In a somber locker room, Demetrius Jackson stood strong in his stance that he’ll deal with his future at a later date. Nothing to see now. Too much to sort out.

But that date, at least for now, is now.

Coach Mike Brey indicated that the standout junior guard will declare for the 2016 NBA draft. He will not hire an agent. That will allow Jackson to attend the draft combine in Chicago in mid-May to be further evaluated with individual skills testing. He’ll also receive face-to-face feedback about his pro potential from NBA decision-makers. Under the new NBA draft rules, Jackson will have 10 days following the combine conclusion to either keep his name in the draft or return to school for his senior season.

“I’ll tell you one thing, he helped his stock tonight,” Brey said. “He looked like an NBA guard.”

Brey insisted he will say nothing to try and sway Jackson to return. In many ways, it’s no longer about what the head coach thinks. It’s about what the people at the next level are telling him. It’s about what his heart is telling him.

All Brey can do is offer his support, which Jackson has.

“You can’t recruit him,” Brey said. “If business says he should go, I’ll lead the parade out of town. He has given us three fabulous years.”

If this was indeed it for Jackson, he went out with one of the best all-around games of his career. Jackson scored a game-high 26 points, one shy of matching his career high, with four assists and a steal before leaving the game in the closing minute and sharing a few words with his head coach.

“Just really proud of the effort our team gave,” Jackson said. “Just tried to be aggressive and create for myself and for others. Just playing to win.

“It came down to effort. We just weren’t able to get it done.”

Jackson and Beachem each earned spots on the All-Region team. If Jackson used Sunday’s stage to show his wares to the NBA, Beachem used the NCAA tournament to offer a peek at the potentially massive season he might have as a senior captain. As good at the end of the tournament as he was from the start, Beachem scored 18 points on six-of-nine from the floor in 39 minutes. He averaged 17.5 points in four NCAA tournament games.

“V.J. Beachem is one confident guy,” Brey said. “Love that he believes the NCAA Tournament is his time.”

While Jackson did as he pleased with the ball, North Carolina did as it pleased in going after and getting the ball. The Tar Heels scored 42 points in the paint, outrebounded the Irish by 17 and turned those second-chance opportunities into 23 points. Notre Dame executed its offensive game plan to near perfection – burn, baby, burn – but came up far too short too many times on the all-important backboard.

“We were burning in the first half,” Brey said. “I liked right where we were.”

North Carolina shot a sizzling 64 percent to grab a five-point lead at halftime. But in those few instances in the second half when the Tar Heels actually missed shots, someone with size and length and length and size and crazy athletic ability often was there to corral the miss and drop in another easy two points.

And that someone often was Brice Johnson, who led the Tar Heels with 25 points and 12 rebounds for the 23rd double-double of the season. On the other end, Notre Dame’s double-double man, senior power forward Zach Auguste, never did get out of the starting gate. Saddled with two early fouls the first 5:22, Auguste couldn’t get his rebound-run-finish game in gear. He ended his college career with five points, three rebounds and numerous tears spilled afterward in the locker room.

That’s the cruelty of the NCAA Tournament – once it ends, it’s done. And for guys like Auguste who will never again put on that Notre Dame jersey, it’s difficult to deal with.

“It’s over now; nothing we can do now will bring it back,” Auguste said. “I’m very proud of this team, man. It wasn’t easy for us this year. We fought. We made a great run.”

North Carolina advances to play fellow Atlantic Coast Conference colleague Syracuse in one national semifinal Saturday at NRG Stadium in Houston. Oklahoma and Villanova round out the Final Four.

In getting to its second-straight Elite Eight, Notre Dame trailed by at least five points in each of its first three tournament games. The Irish then won each of them in somewhat dramatic fashion.

There was “The Comeback,” in which Notre Dame erased a 12-point halftime deficit to dump Michigan in the first round at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Two days later, there was the “The Shot,” as freshman Rex Pflueger tipped in an Auguste miss with 1.5 seconds remaining to give Notre Dame a one-point victory over Stephen F. Austin.

And then there was “The Steal” in which Notre Dame again beat seemingly the longest of odds to erase a three-point deficit with 26 seconds remaining in the five-point victory over Wisconsin on Friday in the East Region semifinal.

For a brief second-half burst, it looked like this one might be defined for Notre Dame by “The Run.”

Down by 11 with 15:48 remaining following – what else? – another bucket in the paint from the Tar Heels, Notre Dame looked like it was just about out of gas. Just then, the Irish found another gear. Out went the burn as Notre Dame just played. And played like it was poised to slingshot itself all the way to Texas.

“We started playing and banging,” Brey said. “I thought we’d get it.”

Jackson got it going with a big drive. He followed with a 3-pointer. Auguste dropped in a pretty lob from Jackson, was fouled and hit a free throw and the Irish like that were back within three.

Johnson lost his cool on the other end and was assessed a technical foul. Steve Vasturia connected on both technical free throws to get within one. And when Bonzie Colson flipped in a shot in the paint with exactly 13 minutes left, the Irish were up one with a 12-0 complete.

“We felt we were right back in the game,” Auguste said. “We were right within striking distance.”

North Carolina had a few answers of its own. Had to, or the Tar Heels would be going home.

“We had no choice but to keep playing,” said guard Marcus Paige. “We had all the time in the world to just play better.”

That they did. Fueled by Paige, the Tar Heels ripped off 12 unanswered to scramble back up by 11. They then hit a third gear. Then a fourth. A fifth.

“Once we got in our rhythm and knocked down some shots,” Paige said, “it was game.”


Season over.

NOTRE DAME (24-12): Beachem 6-9 3-5 18, Auguste 2-3 1-1 5, Farrell 2-3 0-0 6, Jackson 10-16 3-4 26, Vasturia 4-10 2-2 11, Pflueger 0-0 0-0 0, Ryan 0-0 0-0 0, Colson 3-8 2-2 8. Totals 27-49 11-14 74.

NORTH CAROLINA (32-6): Meeks 4-4 2-2 10, Johnson 10-15 5-5 25, Jackson 4-6 2-3 11, Berry II 4-8 2-2 11, Paige 3-8 5-5 13, Britt 2-3 0-0 4, Pinson 2-2 2-5 6, Hicks 3-4 0-0 6, James 0-2 2-2 2. Totals 32-52 20-24 88.

Halftime--North Carolina 43-38. 3-Point Goals--Notre Dame 9-18 (Beachem 3-5, Jackson 3-7, Farrell 2-2, Vasturia 1-4), North Carolina 4-13 (Paige 2-6, Jackson 1-2, Berry II 1-4, Britt 0-1). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Notre Dame 15 (Colson 5), North Carolina 32 (Johnson 12). Assists--Notre Dame 9 (Jackson 4), North Carolina 17 (Berry II 8). Total Fouls--Notre Dame 18, North Carolina 17. Technical--Johnson. A--20,743.