March 26, 2016
PHILADELPHIA (AP) The day before North Carolina and Notre Dame were to meet for a berth in the Final Four, the talk around the Wells Fargo Center was about a game played two weeks ago.
That would have been the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, a 78-47 victory for North Carolina over the Fighting Irish. A 31-point blowout just 15 days ago.
“I misplaced it,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said about the tape of that game. “Those are the ones that you burn, you don’t go back to. But certainly you have to learn from it and we’ve talked about it a little bit in practice.”
Since that loss Notre Dame has become the comeback kids of the NCAA Tournament. The Fighting Irish have trailed in the second half of all three of their games and two have come down to the final seconds.
“They’re playing at a really high level right now. But I think we are as well,” Notre Dame forward Steve Vasturia said. “So especially with one day to get ready for them, we’re so familiar with what they do and they know what we do. So I think mainly for us just going out there and focusing on what we do best and playing with nothing to lose and that should be good enough for us.”
The matchup between top-seeded North Carolina (31-6) and sixth-seeded Notre Dame (24-11) in the East is just one of two all-ACC regional finals. In the Midwest, top-seeded Virginia meets 10th-seeded Syracuse, guaranteeing the ACC a team in the national championship game.
North Carolina players look to another matchup the Tar Heels had with Notre Dame that turned the season around. On Feb. 6, the Fighting Irish won at home, 80-76, and the Tar Heels say that second half is what turned around for them and they have gone 12-2 since that loss.
“First thing we’ve learned is that defense wins championships. We’ve really played well defensively especially at the end of the first half and beginning of the second. And that’s basically what we learned mostly out of that game,” said Brice Johnson, North Carolina’s leading scorer (16.8) and rebounder (10.5). “We can’t let up on them because they’re a very good team and they will make runs during the game. And that’s pretty much it.”
This is North Carolina’s 26th regional final and the Tar Heels have gone on the Final Four a record 18 times, the last in 2009 when they won the last of their five national championships.
For Notre Dame this is its seventh regional final and the Fighting Irish won once, its only Final Four appearance in 1978.
“I was a freshman at Northwestern Louisiana,” Brey said. “I certainly remember watching those Notre Dame teams.”
North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, who got the Tar Heels’ Sweet 16 win over Indiana off to great start with four 3-pointers, brought it all back to what Sunday night’s game really means.
“Revenge can’t be the only motivating factor in a game that gets you to the Final Four. That’s the biggest thing. This game is to go to the Final Four,” he said. “I don’t care what happened in the past. And I’m sure they don’t either. This is a one-game opportunity to change your season.”
FAMILIAR FOE: This will be the second time North Carolina has faced another ACC team in the NCAA Tournament. In 1981, the Tar Heels beat Virginia in the national semifinals in Philadelphia.
SURE SHOOTING: Notre Dame’s V.J. Beacham is on quite a tear in the NCAA Tournament. The 6-foot-8 junior is 20 for 31 in the three NCAA games (64.5 percent) including 52.9 percent from 3-point range (9 of 17). He is averaging 17.7 points per game in the tournament after scoring a total of four points in four tournament games last season.
FOURTH TIME: This will be the fourth NCAA Tournament meeting between the schools and North Carolina has yet to lose. They met in 1977, 1985 and 1997.
SECOND HALF STAR: Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson had scored 26 points in the second halves of the Fighting Irish’s last two games. He had 12 in the last-second win over Stephen F. Austin and 14, including the steal and game-winning basket in the final seconds, against Wisconsin.
SOME DEFENSE: North Carolina has held opponents to under 50 percent shooting in its last 27 games. The only team to make more than they missed against the Tar Heels was Maryland (50.8 percent) in North Carolina’s 89-81 victory.
SOME NAMES: Paige moved into 14th place on Carolina’s career scoring list, passing Michael Jordan during the Indiana game. Johnson became the third Tar Heel to average a double-double and shoot 60 percent from the field, joining Bobby Jones in 1973 and Mitch Kupchak in 1975.
COACHING CASUALTIES: This is one tough regional. North Carolina coach Roy Williams banged his leg during the news conference on Friday night. Brey hurt his calf during the win over Wisconsin and was in a walking boot Saturday.
“I told my doc ‘I don’t really want to do this,” Brey said, “We’ll talk tomorrow.”