Locking Down a 12th-Straight Victory

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Marcus Paige made his second-half presence felt at the buzzer, blocking Eric Atkins' driving attempt to secure a 63-61 victory for No. 14 North Carolina despite coughing up a 14-point halftime lead and matching a season-low with 22 points in a half.

After shooting 50 percent to take a 41-27 lead into the break, UNC managed just five points in the first 9:11 of the second half. Paige's jumper with 5:51 to play pushed the Tar Heels over double digits for the half and broke a 50-50 tie.

It could have been worse, actually. Notre Dame wing Pat Connaughton (17 points) outscored UNC 10-1 to open the second half. The Fighting Irish scored 22 points on its first 12 possessions, while UNC scored five points on its first 13 possessions, resulting in a 17-point swing.

The Fighting Irish, playing without starting center Garrick Sherman, took a 49-46 lead with 13:12 to play.

It was then, however, that junior forward Desmond Hubert subbed in for Brice Johnson, joining fellow reserves Nate Britt and Isaiah Hicks along with Paige (7 points) and James Michael McAdoo (14 points, 9 rebounds).

"He's the best defensive player of the big guys," UNC head coach Roy Williams said of Hubert following the game. "He can slide his feet well enough to get out on the floor and do some better defensive work against the screen on the ball."

The Tar Heels relit its defensive fire and held Notre Dame scoreless for the next seven minutes.

"They just came out hot; we came out slow," Britt said. "We needed to pick up our intensity on the defensive end and defend them a little bit better. I feel like after awhile that ‘s what we did. I think there was a [seven]-minute stretch where we held them without a basket, so I was glad we were able to change the pace on defense."

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey agreed.

"You've got to give Carolina credit – their defense was pretty good," he said.

It's not as though UNC took full advantage. Despite keeping the ball out of the Fighting Irish's net, the Tar Heels scored just four points over that same seven-minute stretch.

"We held them defensively for quite awhile there and we couldn't throw it in the ocean ourselves on the offensive end," Williams said.

UNC shot 40.9 percent in the second half. Notre Dame shot 53.8 percent despite missing nine of its last 14 field goal attempts.

McAdoo's turnaround with 3:09 to play gave UNC the lead for good at 57-56, although three missed free throws in the final 2:23 afforded the Fighting Irish to stay within closing distance until the final buzzer.

Paige, who struggled against Notre Dame's diamond-and-1 defensive approach, surveyed the available options as Eric Atkins raced up the court in the final seven seconds down two points.

Atkins had success in driving the ball to the basket in the second half, so the final play was designed to read the defense, penetrate and kick out to the corner if a lane wasn't available, according to Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey.

Atkins got a step on Britt and made a beeline down the right side of the lane.

"I could kind of tell he was going to keep it and try to lay it in, so I forgot about my shooter in the corner and just made the decision to try to go in and make a stop at the rim," Paige said. "I guess I guessed correctly, because he could have kicked it out to the corner, but he went up for the layup and I was able to get a piece of it."

Five days ago, Paige hit a similar shot in overtime to top N.C. State. On Monday, the sophomore guard prevented overtime from occurring, despite UNC's second-half struggles.

The Tar Heels' 22 points after the break marked their fewest points scored in a half in a win since scoring 20 in the second half against Maryland (62-52) on Jan. 19, 2013.

 

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