NCAA: Notre Dame basketball magic runs out on defense

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

A postseason defined by one magical moment after another for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team seemed headed toward more late Sunday in the East Region championship against mighty North Carolina.

A ridiculous run of rallies started earlier this month in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament quarterfinal against Duke with “The Comeback.” There was “The Comeback II” in the NCAA opener against Michigan. Then “The Shot” two days later against Stephen F. Austin sent Notre Dame into the Sweet 16 for a second straight season.

Notre Dame still wasn’t done during its potential dance with destiny. “The Steal” helped beat Wisconsin and set up the Elite Eight matchup.

During Sunday night’s second half against North Carolina, “The Run” looked like it would propel Notre Dame into its first Final Four since 1978. Instead, following an 88-74 loss at Wells Fargo Center it was “The End.”

Needing something to snap the Irish out of an early-second half fog, coach Mike Brey scrapped a four-around-one lineup that operated behind the “burn” offense for much of the first half in favor of the power-forward pairing of Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson. Both delivered double doubles for points and rebounds in the February win over North Carolina, and both seemed to immediately find that familiar groove together.

“We put Bonzie in and started playing and banging,” Brey said. “Bonzie and Zach together were able to give us a little ‘oomph’ on post defense.”

With the Auguste-Colson tag team, Notre Dame (24-12) needed only 2:48 to run off 12 unanswered points. The Irish made all four shots from the floor to only one turnover. They forced the Tar Heels (32-6) to go just 0-for-2 from the field with no offensive rebounds (more on that later) and two turnovers. Tar Heel terror Brice Johnson also helped. He was assessed his second foul, then picked up a technical foul, which immediately resulted in his third foul.

When Colson posted up with no fear of the opposing front line and scored, the Irish were up 52-51.

“I thought when we took that lead, it’s going to go to game situations and we’ve been in more close games,” Brey said. “I thought we’d get it.”

That confidence carried over to the Irish.

“We felt it,” Colson said. “We felt we could get over the hump and defend.”

Notre Dame didn’t deliver and was done in by defensive flaws.

Its one-point advantage lasted all of 21 seconds before Marcus Paige put Carolina ahead for good with a pull-up jumper. That kick-started a 12-0 run that saw Notre Dame go 0-for-3 from the field with three fouls and two turnovers in a 3:31 span.

North Carolina busted loose for five baskets on seven attempts (71.4 percent). Four were in the all-important paint area. Just over six minutes after trailing once by 11, the Irish were down that number again.

And really out.

“You’ve got to get consecutive stops and rebound,” Colson said. “We didn’t get them.”

North Carolina’s run included four offensive rebounds. The crusher was delivered by ACC sixth man of the year Isaiah Hicks. Boxed out perfectly by Colson, Hicks slithered his left arm around Colson’s left side and somehow got enough on Theo Pinson’s missed free throw with his left hand to tap it back into the bucket. That dropped the Irish into a seven-point hole, from which Brey figured his team likely wasn’t going to find a way out.

“When something like that happens, you go, ‘You know, it’s been a good year,’” Brey said. “They pounded on us.”

Offensive rebounds and second-chance points were familiar storylines in the teams’ third meeting. In February, North Carolina corralled 15 offensive rebounds but had only 13 second-chance points. Auguste and Colson each grabbed 10 rebounds to make it tougher than usual for the Tar Heels.

Earlier this month in Washington, Notre Dame couldn’t keep Carolina off the offensive glass (19 rebounds) and couldn’t absorb 20 second-chance points. On Sunday, the Tar Heels tallied 13 offensive rebounds and 23 second-chance points.

“They’re a great team,” Auguste said. “A lot of weapons.”

What could the Irish have done differently to neutralize those weapons of size and strength?

“I don’t know, man,” Auguste said.

Notre Dame was outrebounded big in both losses (18, 17) while Auguste and Colson were neutralized by a Tar Heel frontline that attacked in waves. They did it earlier this month; they did it again Sunday.

Too tall. Too strong. Too deep. Too much.

“They just pounded us on the glass,” said Irish sophomore guard Matt Farrell. “Too many easy buckets. We showed some signs of life, but it didn’t work out.”

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