PHILADELPHIA — When this season began, North Carolina was the consensus preseason choice as No. 1 in the country, but of course, that came with the caveat that the Tar Heels often fall short of their lofty expectations.
Maybe not this year. As the season approaches its final stage, Carolina looks like the most dominant team in the country. Just ask Indiana, which got steamrolled by the hot-shooting Tar Heels, 101-86, in the East Regional semifinals Friday night at Wells Fargo Arena. The victory puts top-seeded UNC (31-6) in tomorrow’s regional title game against fellow ACC team Notre Dame (24-11).
Indiana (27-8) simply could do nothing about Carolina’s torrid 51.6-percent shooting, including 55.0 percent from three-point range (11-for-20). As Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said of senior guard Marcus Paige, “That little sucker over there made four threes before the first TV timeout.”
And it just went from there. Paige led the Tar Heels with 21 points, six assists and no turnovers, and they got double- figures scoring from Brice Johnson (20 points, 10 rebounds), Kennedy Meeks (15), Justin Jackson (14) and Joel Berry (14).
Point guard Yogi Ferrell had 25 points and Troy Williams added 21 for the Hoosiers. Max Bielfeldt scored 15 and Thomas Bryant had 12.
Carolina was hot from the outset as Paige hit the first four three-pointers he looked at on the way to a 14-8 lead. The Hoosiers pulled within three, but the Tar Heels responded with a 17-4 run in which they made five of six shots and all six free throws to build a 35-19 lead. Jackson had eight points in that stretch.
“They’re not known for knocking those [three-point] shots,” Indiana’s Bielfeldt said. “Today they did. We tried to adjust, but decent shooters had great days. With a team like North Carolina, it’s a tough train to stop.”
The Hoosiers scored the last five points of the first half to trail by a manageable 52-41. But the Tar Heels were shooting 62.1 percent at that point (18-for-29) and had made their first seven three-pointers before Theo Pinson finally missed at the halftime buzzer.
Early in the second half, UNC pushed its lead back to 16 points at 59-43 when Paige converted his fifth straight three-point shot. “I felt good,” he understated. “When you get the first one to go down, it’s good for your confidence. Then I got free and got some good looks, and that real ly helped me.”
Indiana coach Tom Crean said Paige “was making video game shots to start the game. We never got him under control . . . The threes hurt us in the first half, but then the post-ups destroyed us.”
Williams heated up and scored the next 14 straight Indiana points, including two three-pointers and a three- point play, but that was just good enough to cut the Tar Heels’ lead to 67-57.
Berry hit a three-pointer and Johnson converted a dunk off an alley-oop from Pinson in a 6-0 burst that restored a 73-57 UNC lead and told the Hoosiers it wasn’t their night.
Crean was convinced he had witnessed the top team in the country. “If North Carolina plays remotely close to that,” he said, “they’re going to be hard to beat.”