Locked in a close battle on Monday night, the No. 14 North Carolina men’s basketball team needed a knockout punch against a Notre Dame team it was struggling to put away.
With just over 13 minutes left to play, Joel Berry II beat his defender with a pump fake, penetrated the lane and floated a jumper over the outstretched arms of Notre Dame’s Martinas Geben, despite a foul that sent Berry sprawling to the floor. Berry converted the and-one and gave the Tar Heels a 10-point lead — their biggest of the night at that time.
However, right when it seemed like the Tar Heels might be pulling away, defensive lapses allowed the Irish to get back into the game.
“We gave them a lot of easy buckets and that gave them confidence," guard Kenny Williams said, "and that’s how they started to hit their threes."
One of those threes came from Notre Dame’s T.J. Gibbs Jr. with 9:39 left to play. Gibbs’ three from deep on the right side of the arc cut UNC’s lead to 58-57. On the ensuing play, Notre Dame rebounded a Berry miss and had the ball with the chance to take the lead.
At that point, the Tar Heels could have checked out. After all, they were in the middle of their third ACC game in five days — a scheduling quirk no other ACC school will have to manage this year. The Tar Heels very well could have succumbed to mental or physical fatigue.
But forward Theo Pinson and the rest of the Tar Heels were defiant.
“We fought too hard,” Pinson said. “We fought too hard to get here to this point. We’re up one in our home building. There’s no point to being like ‘Oh, I’m so tired, we played three games in five days.’”
So Pinson did what he thought he needed to do — attack.
With less than six minutes to play, forward Luke Maye received the ball on the baseline. Maye finished only 3-11 from the field, but despite his quiet night, two Notre Dame defenders swarmed him immediately.
Pinson saw an opening in the lane, and Maye saw Pinson. Cutting through the paint, Pinson caught Maye’s pass and finished through contact. He converted the old fashioned three-point play and sparked a 13-0 scoring run for UNC.
That run proved to be too much for the Fighting Irish to come back from, as North Carolina would go on to win 83-66.
Pinson, who finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, called the play a big momentum swinger. UNC head coach Roy Williams, however, thought the Tar Heels didn’t deserve all the credit for that run that essentially put the game away.
“We got at about the five and half minute mark and we started scoring and we got lucky,” Williams said. “They missed two or three in a row, and all of a sudden it went from a two-point game to about 10 or 11 pretty quickly.”
Three of those key misses came from Notre Dame’s John Mooney, a backup forward who exploded for 18 points. With North Carolina leading 63-59, Mooney went up for a three but was fouled by Kenny Williams during the shot — Williams’ second foul of a 3-point shooter on the night.
With a chance to bring his team within one, Mooney stepped up to the free throw line. Though he shot a perfect 6-6 from beyond the 3-point line for the game, he missed all three free throws.
“You needed to make those,” said Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. “I thought we got a pretty good look down one. Farrell had a little runner in there. You almost got to take the lead a little and change the karma in the building.”
But Mooney’s misses and a flurry of offense from North Carolina kept the Smith Center karma in UNC’s favor. A Maye tip-in, and layups from Berry and Johnson propelled UNC to a 16-3 run over the last 5:30 of the game.
While Notre Dame was able to keep it close for most of the game, that run proved to be the nail in the coffin.
“They had about a three-minute stretch where they were unbelievable offensively and we certainly couldn’t absorb that,” Brey said. “We gave ourselves a chance.”