If ever there was a chance to make a statement to snap the Tar Heels out of their malaise — and set the tone for the rest of the season — this was it.
"Yeah, we needed to win," head coach Roy Williams said. "I didn’t give a blankety-blank whether it was pretty, ugly or what it was."
That's exactly what the Tar Heels did. UNC took down Notre Dame, 75-69, thanks to a second half push. The Tar Heels out-rebounded the Irish, 47-36, including 28-19 in the second half. UNC went on a late, 12-1 scoring run to take a 10-point lead and pull away from the Irish for a five-minute stretch that began at the 6:51 mark.
Yet the first half looked to be more of the same. Notre Dame entered the locker room up 36-33 and a visibly frustrated junior guard Brandon Robinson took a swing at the air. It was an expression of an underwhelming first half from UNC.
"First half we played without a brain and it was not fun at halftime, it was not fun for me, it was not fun for them," Roy Williams said. "But I liked our toughness making plays down the stretch."
Where UNC never responded against Louisville, it finally found the knockout punch it was looking for against the Fighting Irish.
With 11:59 remaining, the Fighting Irish’s Nate Laszewski intercepted a sloppy pass and streaked down court for what was a sure layup, but Seventh Woods wasn’t ready to concede the play.
The 6-foot-2 guard chased Laszewski down from midcourt, rose up and swatted him at the rim.
He collected the ball and streaked downcourt to draw a foul at the other rim. He sank two free throws to give UNC a 51-50 lead.
"It's so important to not give up on a play like that," Woods said. "We could have been down by three but we went up by one. When that happened, I feel like we really got our momentum going."
Woods’ block set off a sequence that put the Tar Heels up for good. Minutes later, Luke Maye split a double team to find an open Nassir Little right under the basket.
The pair were the engine driving UNC late in the second half. On the next play, Maye secured yet another offensive rebound and put up a shot that was rebounded and scored by Little. After the finish, Notre Dame called a timeout. Robinson swung his arms again, celebrating with senior guard Kenny Williams. Same action, different emotion.
Little finished with six rebounds and Maye with 10. The two forwards were a big reason UNC collected 16 offensive boards, nine of which came in the second half.
"I just know I can't go any game without having an offensive rebound," Maye said. "I'm just too good of a rebounder to do that, and I think I just really pushed myself to try to crash more and get to the right spots and I thought I did that better the second half.”
With under two minutes left to play, the pair got involved again. Maye forced a steal on the baseline and found Johnson on the break, who hit Little, streaking to the basket. Little’s layup put the Tar Heels up by 10.
On Saturday, Roy Williams said that his team had to learn how to win games ugly, even when they don't shoot well. In a game in which UNC shot under 40 percent from the field, he learned just how well his team could do that.
“I think we just needed to win, but I don't mind winning ugly."
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