CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — For all the high marks Notre Dame’s offense is receiving, the 13th-ranked Irish got it done in the clutch at the defensive end for a breakthrough victory Monday night.
The Irish withstood North Carolina’s last eight shots to hold off the 18th-ranked Tar Heels 71-70 in an Atlantic Coast Conference game at the Smith Center.
“We got some really key stops at key times,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “When we had to get key stops, we really dug in and got them.”
Notre Dame forward Zach Auguste scored a go-ahead basket off an offensive rebound for the game’s final points with slightly more than a minute to play.
The Irish, who began the week leading the country with 55.3-percent shooting from the field, were held to 46 percent. It didn’t matter because the Irish showed something else.
“(The defense) is something this team really wanted to pride itself on,” guard Pat Connaughton said. “We really wanted it to start at the defensive end. … The road atmosphere, we were tested. It’s all about hanging tough, hanging together. It was buckling down.”
Auguste finished with 18 points, Connaughton had 16 and guard Demetrius Jackson added 15 for Notre Dame, which ran its winning streak to 11 games.
Guard Marcus Paige scored 15 points for North Carolina.
Notre Dame (15-1, 3-0 ACC) matched its victory total from all of last season. The Irish have a 3-0 record in conference play for the first time in either the Big East or ACC.
“The thing I said about this league, it’s harder to win on the road than in the Big East,” Brey said. “So anything you can get like this, you take.”
Forward Kennedy Meeks gave the Tar Heels (11-4, 1-1) their first lead since the opening two minutes when he sank two free throws with 2:07 to play.
Auguste’s basket at the 1:05 mark ended a field-goal drought of more than nine minutes for the Irish. It was one of only six offensive rebounds for the Irish.
“It’s amazing with the offensive rebounding. We got 21 and they got six,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “Yet the biggest play of the game was their offensive rebound and putback.”
After North Carolina retrieved the ball three times following missed shots, Paige drove into the lane, and his shot bounced away.
Notre Dame guard Steve Vasturia missed two foul shots with five seconds to go, setting up another chance for North Carolina. Two timeouts later, Paige was stuck with an off-balance shot from beyond that 3-point arc that didn’t hit the rim.
“It was a prayer,” Williams said. “It would have been nice if it went in.”
North Carolina made only 30.3 percent (10 of 33) shots from the field in the second half.
“The hoop had a lid on it at the end,” Paige said. “You have to make some of those. We were getting stops against them, which is really hard to do. We just couldn’t get the baskets.”
Down 11 with less than 12 1/2 minutes to play and trailing 69-61 with six minutes left, the Tar Heels avoided a knockout punch.
North Carolina pulled within 60-54 with 10:40 left courtesy of a seven-point burst by reserve forward Theo Pinson.
Notre Dame made its first 15 free-throw attempts until Connaughton missed twice with 4:59 left. Paige responded with a 3-pointer, drawing the Tar Heels within 69-66.
Jackson played only 12 first-half minutes because of two fouls.
Meeks picked up his fourth foul on an offensive move with 17:14 remaining. He returned to score six points in the final five minutes before fouling out with five seconds left. Meeks finished with 12 points.
Forward J.P. Tokoto also had 12 points for North Carolina.
Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant (eight points, eight assists) fouled out with 2:07 left. All of his fouls came in the second half.
“I thought he was delivering the ball,” Brey said, pointing to his positive impact on the game.
The Irish held a 38-34 halftime lead thanks to solid perimeter scoring.
On the strength of three 3-pointers, Notre Dame built a 25-15 advantage. The Irish had five
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