SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Turn a bunch of athletes loose and let them do some damage.
That was North Carolina’s plan against Notre Dame Saturday.
The Tar Heels (16-7, 6-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) did not let a nine-point first-half deficit bother them. They held the Irish (12-12, 3-8) scoreless in the last 3:49 of the first half, and started the second half with an 8-2 run that evolved into a 73-62 victory.
“In the second half, our defense was more active,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “We came up with some loose balls and some turnovers (the Irish committed 17 turnovers). All of a sudden, we got our break going, as well.”
North Carolina’s inside game was nothing short of impressive. The Tar Heels outscored Notre Dame 44-26 in the paint, had a 37-32 rebounding edge (which included 9-2 on the offensive glass in the first half) and forced the Irish into 17 turnovers.
Forward James McAdoo led the way with 18 points and eight rebounds. Forward J.P. Tokoto had 13 points and seven rebounds. Guard Marcus Paige had 16 points and six assists, while Brice Johnson came off the bench to score 10 points.
Forward Garrick Sherman led Notre Dame with 17 points. Guard Eric Atkins had 12 and forward Zach Auguste and guard V.J. Beachem had 10 each.
“I think we’re playing more consistently now,” Paige said. “We’re definitely taking steps forward.”
The steps happened because the Tar Heels refused to flinch after Notre Dame’s fast start, and used their superior athleticism to frustrate the Irish.
“The biggest thing is probably our sense of urgency on defense,” McAdoo said. “We’re focused on being disciplined and sound.”
Nothing wrong with that.
It took a while for North Carolina to find its legs in the first half. Once the Tar Heels’ inside game started clicking, they owned a 27-23 at intermission.
North Carolina shot just 36 percent (12 of 33) in the first 20 minutes, but a 21-15 rebounding edge made up for that deficiency. Paige and Tokoto scored nine points each.
After trailing most of the half, Paige hit a 3-pointer with 1:56 to play to tie the game 23-23. Thirty seconds later, McAdoo slammed home a Paige miss to give Carolina its first lead since the opening bucket.
“We never could get any rhythm or confidence back in the second half,” Irish coach Mike Brey said.
Notre Dame has not been a fast-out-of-the-blocks sort of team through the ACC season, but the Irish got a jump-start against North Carolina.
Connaughton’s 3-pointer with a little more than 3 minutes gone in the game was pivotal in Notre Dame getting out to a 10-2 lead. A little later, Atkins gave the Tar Heels’ spirit a hit when North Carolina’s tough defense forced the Irish to run down the shot clock. Just before it expired, Atkins drilled a 3-pointer.
“It’s disappointing,” Atkins said. “We had a great start to the game. They were playing at our pace and we weren’t turning the ball over. We were being very good and efficient with the ball, but they picked up the pressure at that point and we started getting sloppy.”
Notre Dame, which normally values its possessions, was careless with the ball.
“We can’t absorb (17 turnovers) with their 15 offensive rebounds,” Brey said. “When you turn the ball over like that and can’t calm the paint down, (it is not good).”
“There’s no question (forcing) turnovers is a big part of our game because we like to run the ball,” Williams said. “In the open court, we make some good decisions. That led to some good basketball and some good shots around the basket.”
And a big victory.
NOTES: Notre Dame sophomore F Austin Burgett, who missed the last four games after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, returned to the Irish lineup Saturday. The 6-foot-9 Burgett, who is averaging 3.5 points per game, had a surgical procedure to address the issue. … Saturday’s win was Carolina’s fifth straight, its longest streak of the season. … Notre Dame has been struggling, losing five of its last six.
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