North Carolina celebrates East Regional championship after defeating Notre Dame to reach first Final Four since 2009. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)
PHILADELPHIA -- With his team having just given up a 12-0 run that erased an 11-point lead, Marcus Paige decided to rally the troops.
"He said, 'guys, they made runs,'" head coach Roy Williams recounted as Paige kept his teammates motivated. "It's a game of runs. We're going to make a run."
Following the calm and determined message from their senior leader, North Carolina went on a 12-0 spurt of their own, wresting control of the East Regional final away from Notre Dame once and for all, not stopping until the final buzzer sounded on the Tar Heels' 88-74 victory over the Fighting Irish, bringing UNC to their 19th all-time Final Four and first since 2009, when they left Detroit's Ford Field with the national championship in tow.
"That swing was huge," said Paige of UNC's counterpunch, which came after senior forward Brice Johnson had received a potentially costly technical foul during Notre Dame's rally. "We got up 11, and then they erased the 11-point deficit so fast that we had no choice but to keep playing. Once we got in our rhythm and knocked down some shots, it was the game."
The Tar Heels (32-6) fed off exceptional shooting for the second game in a row, bettering their 52 percent effort in Friday's regional semifinal against Indiana by ten points on Sunday, shooting an astounding 62 percent from the floor to set a school record for highest field goal percentage in a regional final. But for all the attention the offense commanded this weekend, and rightfully so, it was the battle of the boards that defeated Notre Dame, (24-12) as UNC's 13 offensive rebounds were just two shy of Notre Dame's total on both sides of the basketball.
"They wore us down a little bit with their depth and their front line," said Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey. "We took that one-point lead and they really answered it like men, and we didn't have much left, but I loved how we went at them. We gave them everything we had."
UNC attacked the basket early and often, even through a first half that saw both teams trade baskets for the majority of the period. Two quick fouls drawn against Notre Dame's Zach Auguste in the first six minutes enabled the Tar Heels to establish position under the rim, with Kennedy Meeks and Johnson forming an effective tag team against a smaller Fighting Irish lineup.
While Johnson, who posted 25 points and 12 rebounds en route to being named the East Regional's Most Outstanding Player, took control in the first half, Meeks came out of the locker room like a house on fire, scoring UNC's first eight points after the intermission to put the Tar Heels ahead 51-40 with 15:48 to play in regulation. But Notre Dame, as they had throughout their NCAA Tournament run, fought back on the strength of point guard Demetrius Jackson, who scored the first five points in their aforementioned 12-0 outburst to seize the initiative away from their conference brethren. The junior, currently projected by Draft Express as the No. 11 pick in June's NBA Draft, led all scorers with 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting.
Down one with 13 minutes to go, Paige calmly navigated the court on the ensuing possession, draining a jumper to give UNC the lead for good. A combination of empty Notre Dame possessions and a stand that did not allow a field goal for nearly five minutes helped UNC pad their lead, sustaining it down the stretch when the Fighting Irish were unable to get much-needed stops on the defensive end.
With the victory, UNC heads into the national semifinals to face their second straight conference opponent, taking on Syracuse on Saturday after the Orange continued their shocking march to Houston earlier in the day by upsetting top-seeded Virginia to capture the Midwest Regional. The Tar Heels are already being mentioned as the prospective favorite to cut down the nets in the Lone Star State, which their senior leader has no problem with.
"I think we always thought we were going to be the favorite," said Paige. "In our minds, when we're playing our best basketball, we feel like we can't be beat."