ACC Basketball

ACC Title Game: North Carolina vs Notre Dame

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Three-seeded Notre Dame has won four in a row, beating a pair of top-25 teams in the process to reach the ACC Tournament Finals. Against Duke Friday night, the Irish jumped out early, taking a 15-point lead at the half, extending it to 17 early in the second, before holding off a pesky Blue Devil comeback to win it 74-64.

Holding on was also the theme in the other semifinal game. The Tar Heels took control early and rarely struggled against top-seeded Virginia, possessing a 13-point lead with eight minutes to play. Yet, behind a Malcolm Brogdon surge, the Cavaliers got back to within one, before a Borgdon turnover and Paige bucket in the final minute helped Carolina to their third-straight victory…their first three-game winning streak since late January.

These two faced off way back on January 5 and that game for Notre Dame was very familiar with their two games in the ACC Tournament…early command, late comeback by opponent, before holding on to victory.

In that contest in Chapel Hill, a 13-5 run gave the Irish a nine-point lead midway through the first. They were up four at the break, but leading by as much as 14 early in the second. They still led 60-50 before the Tar Heels made a late run, but then the strangest ending to a game this year occurred when neither team could buy a bucket.

Notre Dame would go nine minutes between baskets, while North Carolina had just one in the game’s final seven minutes. Both teams did manage to get to the line and the Tar Heels took their first lead since 4-2 when Kennedy Meeks hit a pair with two minutes to go. However, the Irish’s nine-minute basket drought came to an end with Zach Auguste rebounded a Pat Connaughton miss to give his team a 71-70 lead. Marcus Paige would miss two final shots before time ran out.

In that game, Marcus Paige had 15 points, while Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks struggled, hitting just 6-for-19 from the game against the small Irish lineup. Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant had his worst outing (until going into Cameron), hitting just 1-for-8 from the floor, but the team made up for it by hitting 10 threes.

Heading into the title game, expect to see a ton offensive fireworks. While the Irish only hit two threes against Duke in the semifinals, look for Notre Dame to reestablish their outside  shot against Carolina. The Tar Heels should struggle to keep both Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson out of the lane and since their wings like to help, Pat Connaughton, Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem should get plenty of open looks.

Another reason to attack is to get the refs involved. North Carolina leads the conference in fouls, which matters since the Irish are one of the best in the nation at making free throws.

Of course the one big difference between that first game and this one is, the Tar Heels will be without Theo Pinson, while back then, Notre Dame didn’t give any minutes to Bonzie Colson. The freshman was unstoppable in the paint against the Blue Devils, scoring 14 points in the first half. He’s undersized, but he’s long and it should be fun to see him matched up against Brice Johnson and/or Meeks.

Offensively, North Carolina should try to take advantage of their size. With Johnson, Meeks and with J.P. Tokoto’s athletic ability, they should be able to do some damage inside and there is no excuse for them to not dominate the boards on both ends, as the Irish are 14th in the ACC in defensive rebound % and 13th in offensive rebound %. In their first meeting, UNC out-rebounded Notre Dame, 43-26, grabbing 21 offensive rebounds, getting 22 second half points.

The hope is that a healthy Marcus Paige, an improving Joel Berry, as well as Nate Britt and Tokoto can defend the outside, keep the Irish guards from getting into the paint and be able to get back out on the shooters when the ball gets kicked back out. That might be asking a lot, even for an improving Tar Heels defense. Yet, I think they might be up for the task. Sorry Irish, it’s just hard to get four wins against UNC and Duke in one year, especially when Greensboro is a de facto home game for Carolina.

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WORTHLESS PREDICTION: North Carolina, 79-75

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