PHILADELPHIA — The last No. 1 seed standing in the NCAA Tournament is North Carolina, which survived the wave of upsets with a high-powered offense that battered Notre Dame in an 88-74 victory in the East Regional final Sunday night at Wells Fargo Arena. It was the fourth straight double-digit win of the tournament for the Tar Heels.
Carolina (32-6) advanced to the Final Four to face 10th-seeded Syracuse (23-13) in an all-ACC national semifinal Saturday in Houston.
The Tar Heels shot 61.5 percent from the field and had five double-figures scorers, led by Brice Johnson, who had 25 points and 12 rebounds. Marcus Paige scored 13 points, Justin Jackson had 11, Joel Berry II added 11 points and eight assists, and Kennedy Meeks had 10 points.
Speaking of the Tar Heels’ first trip to the Final Four since 2009, Johnson said, “You want to go in there very confident. You don’t want to go in there scared. Why wouldn’t you want to be very confident and say you’re the favorite?”
Notre Dame (24-12) did its best to challenge UNC. Demetrius Jackson had 26 points, V.J. Beacham 18 and Steve Vasturia 11. But the Irish were outrebounded 32-15 and outscored in second-chance points by a whopping 23-6.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey touted his team as the “toughest” left in the tournament, and the Irish made him look like a prophet by overcoming an 11-point second-half deficit with a 12-0 run that began with five points from Jackson.
A potential turning point was a foul call on North Carolina’s Johnson, who then was hit with a technical, giving him three fouls at the 13:16 mark and putting him on the bench. That led to a four-point Notre Dame possession, including two foul shots by Vasturia and a layup by Bonzie Colson for a brief 52-51 lead.
“I would like to apologize for that technical foul because that was probably the biggest thing that sparked their run,” Johnson said. “It’s really dumb on my part to put my team in a situation like that.
“My teammates did a very good job of just playing. They really stood up in time of need.”
Unfazed, Carolina swung back with a 12-0 run of its own, including four points from Paige and four from Isaiah Hicks, to regain control at 63-52.
“They erased that 11-point deficit so fast that we had no choice but to keep playing,” Paige said. “Our defense got a lot better, and then, once we got in our rhythm and knocked down some shots, it was game.”
Starting with the 12-0 run, Carolina scored on 13 straight possessions and 18 of its final 19 to seal the victory. Brey was impressed.
“I thought we put ourselves in position [to win],” he said. “Credit to Carolina. We took a one-point lead, and they answered it like men. I think they’re playing the best of anybody.”
Carolina shot 64.0 percent to 58.3 percent by the Irish while taking a 43-38 halftime lead. Meeks opened the second half by scoring on four point-blank shots for a 51-40 advantage that was the first double-digit lead. The Irish came back to win their first three tournament games, but after gaining their 52-51 lead, they ran into a Carolina blue buzzsaw.
“The way they answered that run was championship level,” Brey said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced anything like that.”