This season has been a tale of two North Carolina squads. One that thrives on a fast-paced style that runs its opponent out of the gym, and the flip side where the Tar Heels struggle in a halfcourt setting. Once North Carolina’s athleticism began forcing turnovers and scoring fast-break points, it easily topped Notre Dame 73-62 at Purcell Pavilion on Saturday.
Notre Dame turned the ball over 17 times and were outscored 44-26 in the paint in its eighth ACC loss of the season.
Notre Dame (12-12, 3-8 ACC) led by as many as nine during a first half in which the Irish controlled the pace. North Carolina — the ACC’s most up-tempo team according to advanced metrics — did not score a fast-break point in the opening 20 minutes. That quickly changed in the second half.
The Tar Heels (16-7, 6-4) forced six Irish turnovers in the opening seven minutes of the second half and scored six fast-break points (they finished with eight) while outscoring Notre Dame 23-11 in the points off turnovers category in the game. By then, North Carolina’s lead had mushroomed to 16 points behind a flurry of dunks and layups, an insurmountable deficit for the Irish. Of the Tar Heels’ first 21 points of the second half, 12 came off Notre Dame turnovers.
“That’s really bothering me,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said of his team’s high turnover rate in recent weeks. “We’ve been so good with the ball here [traditionally] and to see us hit that thing around like that, you go back to the drawing board. What do we need to do offensively to simplify so we can take better care of the basketball? If there’s one thing to point to, that’s been the dagger for us.”
North Carolina increased its winning streak to a season-high five games after beginning league play 1-4. The Tar Heels host No. 11 Duke and No. 25 Pittsburgh next week.
“We’d have a great game and then a terrible game,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said of his team’s up-and-down play this year. “We’re more consistent now.”
The Irish played competitively at No. 1 Syracuse on Monday by outscoring the Orange 22-16 in the paint, a category where North Carolina crushed Notre Dame (44-26) on Saturday.
“We did a good job in the first half trying to keep everything in front of us and trying to make them shoot jumpers,” said fifth-year senior center Garrick Sherman, who finished with 17 points. “In the second half, they got a lot of easy ones.”
In between a stretch from the 3:49 mark in the first half when senior guard Eric Atkins nailed a jumper to when sophomore forward Zach Auguste scored with 15:42 left in the second half, Notre Dame mustered just one field goal compared to six turnovers. That, coupled with the poor transition defense, sunk Notre Dame’s chances to avoid its fifth home loss of the season.
Fifth-year senior center Garrick Sherman scored 17 points in the defeat.
“[Our transition defense] hurt us,” Brey said. “I thought we were good the first 10 minutes of the game, but when you turn it over at the three-point line, you put a lot of pressure on your defense.”
Irish sophomore forward Austin Burgett returned to action after missing four games with an irregular heartbeat. He underwent a procedure to correct the issue Jan. 29 and returned to practice Thursday. He played only 11 minutes while he works to return to game shape.
“He’s probably feeling his way back in game competition,” Brey said. “One of the things we need to do over the next two days is get him back in shape.”
Notre Dame will conclude its regular-season slate against North Carolina March 3 in Chapel Hill, N.C. The Irish host Clemson on Tuesday at Purcell Pavilion.