Saturday, March 26, 2016

UNC, Notre Dame meet in rubber match with Final Four hanging in balance

Brice Johnson, who scored 26 points and 21 rebounds against Notre Dame in two prior meetings this season, admits his North Carolina team needs to learn from prior mistakes in rubber match with Fighting Irish in Sunday's East Regional final. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

PHILADELPHIA -- On one bench stands a team expected to arrive at this stage, having done so with an emphatic 101-point showing their last time out to bring them there. Across the court is a conference rival that flies under the radar with a No. 6 seed, but has won three games in dramatic fashion to stand at the precipice of something big for the second consecutive year.

That summarizes in a nutshell the clash between North Carolina (31-6) and Notre Dame (24-11) in Sunday's East Regional final, the second of two all-ACC Elite Eight matchups that tips off at 8:49 p.m. from the Wells Fargo Center, preceded by Virginia and Syracuse in the Midwest Regional. And in each of the first two encounters, a different tenor was established.

"We went up to South Bend and they kicked our tails," Roy Williams said of the first encounter between his Tar Heels and the Fighting Irish, a February 6 soiree that ended with Notre Dame scoring 50 points in the second half and posting 20 offensive rebounds in an 80-76 victory. "They were more aggressive, greater intensity, greater effort, more concentration. And then we get them in the (ACC) tournament, and it flipped."

"Those are ones that you burn, you don't go back to," said Mike Brey of Notre Dame's loss in the ACC Tournament semifinals, a 78-47 UNC rout marked by suffocating Tar Heel defense and a game-changing 24-0 run that spanned the end of the first half and beginning of the second. "We just were not very good with the basketball, and give Carolina credit. I think they've stepped up their defense."

The advantage to facing a team for the third time in this setting is that scouting takes on a more familiar tone, having seen a sufficient sample size of what your opponent does schematically. However, the other side of the coin is that the other team can say the same, something the UNC camp addressed leading up to Sunday's battle.

"I would say it's an advantage," Marcus Paige began, "but they also have the advantage of playing us twice as well, so I think it kind of cancels out. I do think it's better than not having played a team, because you at least know what to expect and you know the athleticism, size and shooting that they bring, and you've played against it."

So, what have both teams learned from their two previous brushes with one another?

"Defense wins championships," said Brice Johnson, referencing the Tar Heels' decisive takedown of Notre Dame two weeks ago at the Verizon Center. "We've really played well defensively, especially at the end of the first half and beginning of the second. We can't let up on them, because they're a very good team and they'll make runs during the game."

"Like Coach said, they're playing at a really high level right now, but I think we are as well," Notre Dame forward Steve Vasturia chimed in. "We're so familiar with what they do and they know what we do, so I think just going out there and focusing on what we do best, and playing with nothing to lose, should be good enough for us."

Another key for the gold and blue will be ball movement, making sure to not fall into the trap of UNC's transition defense, which Brey hopes to combat with his dual point guard attack.

"We're going to have to be better finding people," he said. "I'm hoping Matt Farrell in the lineup to start the game helps us, because we have another ball handler on the floor. We didn't start that way in Washington, D.C., and that's kind of taken a little pressure off Demetrius (Jackson) in that we have another ball handler on the floor to start a game."

Fighting Irish forward Zach Auguste played up the motivation factor after the 31-point loss, stating that his team has some "unfinished business" to settle with the Tar Heels. But in the opposing locker room, the mindset is that of what lies at stake, and that takes greater precedence, or so says North Carolina's senior leader.

"If it was us that got blown out, we would be talking about that nonstop, trying to get ourselves fired up for revenge," Paige admitted. "But at the same time, 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," Paige reiterated. "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."

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