Carolina comeback falls short for No. 20 Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Looking to muster any remaining magic from the last time it was in the building where it delivered arguably the biggest victory in program history nearly two years ago, No. 20 Notre Dame was right there.

Same court. Same opponent. Same second-half scenario.

It was all falling in line for the Irish, who went small in the second half and almost came up big Sunday against No. 12 North Carolina.

But close wasn’t good enough. Again.

Unable to keep the Tar Heels from doing what they do – chasing down missed shot after missed shot on both ends and scoring at the rim – Notre Dame saw its Atlantic Coast Conference losing streak slide to four following an 83-76 loss.

Notre Dame (17-7; 6-5) has lost five of six and is 1-6 against ranked teams. North Carolina (21-4; 9-2) has won nine of 10.

Down and seemingly headed out with a third double-digit league loss in the last four games, the Irish showed some fight. A lot of it. Trailing by 15 with 12:46 remaining, Notre Dame delivered a 20-9 run to get it within four with 6:11 remaining.

And when V.J. Beachem connected on a corner 3, it was back to a one-possession game – 75-73 with 3:43 remaining – for the first time since late in the first half.

Last time the Irish were faced with this scenario in this building against this opponent was in the 2015 ACC tournament championship game. That night, they cut down nets and wore championship hats. That night, they trailed by nine with 9:59 remaining and had a look about them. Sunday, they trailed by 10 with 9:57 remaining.

They had that same look. They were coming.

Quickly. Confidently.

“We felt it,” said Beachem, who scored 18 of his team-high 20 points in the second half. “Coach (Mike) Brey was talking about it. We got the stops we wanted and got into our offensive rhythm. We just couldn't make enough plays down the stretch.”

Senior Joel Berry did.

Berry, who went scoreless in the first half, scored with 3:33 left to push the lead to four and kept the Irish from getting any closer. It also seemed to get the Heels to believe that this was their time. The Berry bucket kick-started an 8-0 run and marked the beginning of the end for an Irish team that had all the answers early in league play – and now none since last winning way on Jan. 21.

That feels like ages ago. Different time. Different team. That one was headed places. This one? Who knows?

“It sucks,” said Irish guard Matt Farrell. “We're flowing much better on offense, but this is not a good feeling. We’ve got to get a win on Tuesday.”

North Carolina finished with a 44-25 rebounding advantage. That included 17 offensive rebounds for 19 second-chance points. The Tar Heels also scored 40 points in the paint. Their offense was pretty simple – get it near the rim and get it in. Or go and get it, then get it in.

How demanding a day was it for the Irish? Guard Steve Vasturia, at 6-foot-6, 212 pounds, often found himself having to play post defense – tough, hard-nosed, banging post defense – against Isaiah Hicks, who goes 6-9, 242.

Hicks finished with 14 points and seven rebounds. Vasturia finished with as many fouls (four) as field goals.

“It’s not something I always do, but something I tried to do my best today,” Vasturia said of defending power forwards. “I wasn’t that great today, but they killed us down low pretty much the entire game.”

A lineup change that saw power forward Austin Torres make his first career start Sunday will be short-lived. Has to be. One reason Notre Dame made this one way more interesting than it should have been after falling behind big was that Brey had finally scrapped his big lineup.

The Irish went small for almost all of the second half with a lineup that featured one big – Bonzie Colson, who finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds for his league-leading 14th double double. Much of the second half featured the Irish moving and cutting and, most of all, driving.

“They’re hard to guard,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “They put so much pressure on you.”

Going small saw Notre Dame go from 34 points on 40.7 percent shooting in the first half to 42 points on 48.3 in the second. Small is here to stay.

“Playing small was the only way we would have a chance,” Brey said. “We rode it as long as we could. But eventually their size playing against a smaller lineup got us.”

Torres went scoreless in five minutes. Geben had two points in eight minutes.

Sunday’s game was played 51 miles away from Chapel Hill in Greensboro and was officially designated a “neutral site” game. A state of emergency was declared Friday afternoon back in Chapel Hill after a water-main break that affected 1.5 million gallons of water occurred in Orange County, home to the university.

The game site was switched around 5:30 p.m. Friday. Notre Dame did not travel to North Carolina as had been planned Friday afternoon. The Irish traveling party flew into nearby Winston-Salem on Saturday afternoon.

Farrell refused to pin the loss on the juggled schedule.

It was, though, an adjustment.

“Mentally, yeah, a little bit,” Beachem said. “Everybody’s hyped and ready to go Friday and leave town and play Saturday on a big-time stage and then they move the game. But you’ve gotta fight through those things. They did.”

It’s a quick turnaround for Notre Dame, which returns to action Tuesday at home against Wake Forest. With the North Carolina game being moved back a day, Notre Dame requested to the league that Tuesday’s game with Wake be moved to Wednesday.

That request was not granted.

Brey was disappointed.

“The vibe I was getting was that there was a good shot that was going to happen,” Brey said. “I thought that was the best for competitive balance.”

The league apparently thought otherwise. One reason floated Sunday that keeps the game Tuesday is that Wake Forest couldn’t afford to miss another round of classes on Wednesday. Tuesday? Yes. But not Wednesday. Not again this season.

“I don’t know where the breakdown was,” Brey said. “Whether it was with our administration or the league. It’s funny. The ACC office is here but none of their people are around. I guess they’re avoiding me.”

NOTRE DAME (17-7): Torres 0-0 0-0 0, Beachem 6-12 6-6 20, Colson 5-11 6-8 17, Farrell 7-12 0-0 18, Vasturia 4-11 1-2 9, Geben 1-2 0-0 2, Ryan 0-0 0-0 0, Burns 0-0 0-0 0, Mooney 0-0 0-0 0, Gibbs 0-3 4-4 4, Pflueger 2-5 0-0 6. Totals 25-56 17-20 76.

NORTH CAROLINA (21-4): Hicks 6-10 2-3 14, Meeks 4-6 3-6 11, Jackson 6-15 2-4 16, Berry 3-10 5-7 12, Williams 4-6 0-0 11, Bradley 5-7 2-3 12, Maye 2-3 2-3 6, Woods 0-0 0-0 0, Britt 0-3 1-2 1, Robinson 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 30-61 17-28 83.

Halftime-North Carolina 42-34. 3-Point Goals-Notre Dame 9-26 (Farrell 4-8, Pflueger 2-4, Beachem 2-7, Colson 1-2, Gibbs 0-1, Vasturia 0-4), North Carolina 6-17 (Williams 3-4, Jackson 2-7, Berry 1-5, Britt 0-1). Fouled Out--Meeks. Rebounds-Notre Dame 22 (Colson 10), North Carolina 38 (Meeks 8). Assists-Notre Dame 14 (Vasturia 4), North Carolina 23 (Berry 7). Total Fouls-Notre Dame 21, North Carolina 22. A-17,051 (23,500).

North Carolina's Kennedy Meeks (3) drives to the basket over Notre Dame's Martinas Geben (23) during the first half of their AC matchup in Greensboro, N.C., on Sunday. (AP Photo/GERRY BROOME)