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Can Notre Dame cool red-hot North Carolina?

Notre Dame's Zach Auguste dunks past Wisconsin's Ethan

Notre Dame's Zach Auguste dunks past Wisconsin's Ethan Happ during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the regional semifinals of the men's NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 25, 2016, in Philadelphia. Credit: AP / Matt Rourke

PHILADELPHIA — Two games have defined North Carolina’s season — the Tar Heels’ regular-season loss at Notre Dame and their 31-point blowout of the Irish just over two weeks ago in the ACC Tournament. So it’s appropriate that top-seeded Carolina has to beat a conference rival known for its toughness in the East Regional final Sunday night at Wells Fargo Arena in order to reach the Final Four.

North Carolina forward Brice Johnson said the Tar Heels’ 80-76 loss in South Bend in February taught them that defense is the key to winning championships as they allowed the Irish to convert 20 offensive rebounds into 23 points. Carolina applied that lesson in a 78-47 rout of Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament, forcing 17 turnovers that led to repeated easy baskets.

Point guard Joel Berry II said the 31-6 Tar Heels’ run of three straight double-digit wins in the NCAA Tournament really began with that eye-opening blowout of the Irish (24-11).

“That’s the best we’ve ever played against them,” Berry said. “Our defensive intensity looked awesome. It was a glimpse that we could do it. That Notre Dame game proved that we could sit down and guard some people.

“We look back at that game as the peaking point for our defense. I think that changed our whole outlook on how we need to play defense.”

Notre Dame is bound to use that terrible loss as a motivator, but North Carolina’s Marcus Paige said, “Revenge can’t be the only motivating factor in a game that gets you to the Final Four. I don’t care what happened in the past. This is a one-game opportunity to change your season.”

Irish coach Mike Brey, whose team lost a thriller in the Midwest Regional final last season to a young Kentucky team that reached the Final Four with a 38-0 record, said he “misplaced” the tape of that 31-point loss to North Carolina.

“We know we’re playing a team that is playing the best in the country right now,” Brey said. “They seem to have put it all together, and we saw that up close and personal in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament.”

Comparing this game to the one against Kentucky, Brey added, “Kentucky was young. I always felt good about that one. This one worries me more because [the Tar Heels] are men. They’ve been together a while, and they really have played like veterans. The key has been their defense. I think it started shortly after their game in South Bend. I hear their kids talk and their coach [say] that’s when they got after it defensively.”

After Irish comebacks in their three NCAA wins over Michigan, Stephen F. Austin and Wisconsin, Brey said, “We’re the toughest team left.”

The Irish rebounded from a 30-point loss to Duke last year to win the rematch, and Brey believes they can do the same against UNC by slowing the tempo, rebounding and limiting fast-break opportunities.

“We can’t get in a racetrack with them,” Brey said. “We need some guys to have all-time [shooting] nights. Crazier stuff’s happened, especially with our guys.”

Point guard Demetrius Jackson and center Zach Auguste are critical for Notre Dame, especially if Jackson is slashing to the rim instead of taking jumpers. Adding guard Matt Farrell to the starting lineup, Brey said, provides improved ballhandling.

Although North Carolina shot 55 percent from three-point range to beat Indiana, 101-86, on Friday, the Irish must focus on stopping the post-up moves of Tar Heels forwards Johnson and Kennedy Meeks. As Jackson said, “It’s really going to come down to effort and heart, hustle, getting on the floor, flying around for loose balls and just really going for it.’’

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