Maybe North Carolina should try playing scared more often. The Tar Heels used a 37-2 run that lasted nearly 11 minutes in the second half to defeat Notre Dame 101-59 in the second round of the ACC tournament Wednesday night
The Heels were well aware of Notre Dame’s opening round comeback against Wake Forest, in which it closed the game on a 17-2 run. So with the offense stagnant and the Irish making a few early 3s to start the second half, the Heels’ motivation by fear kicked in.
“Obviously, the way they came back (Tuesday) was kind of scary,” UNC Armando Bacot said. “And not having Garrison (Brooks), we just knew we could not let up on them.”
Senior forward Garrison Brooks suffered a left ankle injury in the first minute of Carolina’s win over Duke on Saturday. He dressed out for the game but did not play for just the second time in 132 games. UNC coach Roy Williams said he knew Tuesday that Brooks would either be limited or unavailable, so he challenged his frontcourt to make up for it.
The Tar Heels advanced to face No. 3 seed Virginia Tech, who they did not play during the regular season. The Hokies played just four games last month, having to shut down basketball activities twice due to contact tracing. They have not played since an 84-46 win over Wake Forest on Feb. 27.
“With (Brooks), we have the best frontcourt nation, by far, easily,” said UNC freshman center Walker Kessler. “And without him, we all kind of understood that we’ve got to step up a little bit, like no one person has to do it by themselves.”
It was evident from the start that Notre Dame couldn’t contain the Tar Heels’ size and they exploited that advantage at every turn. Just visualize Irish guard Dane Goodwin, all 6-foot-6 of him, trying to defend the 7-foot-1 Kessler.
The game was like playing keep away from a younger, smaller sibling. Early on it seemed like every shot Carolina missed, it was able to corral off the boards for a second attempt. And a third. And sometimes a fourth.
The Heels finished with 25 offensive rebounds — one shy of tying its season-high in the loss at Syracuse — and 27 second-chance points.
“I feel like me and Day’Ron (Sharpe) are probably the two best offensive rebounders in the country,” sophomore forward Armando Bacot said. “…We beat each other up in practice all the time every day and make it tough on each other. So just going against other bigs, it’s a lot easier just getting to the offensive glass.”
All of their frontcourt got involved too, with Bacot leading the way with 20 points and 13 rebounds. Sophomore Day’Ron Sharpe, who started in place of Brooks, had 14 points and 10 rebounds. Kessler flirted with just the third triple-double in UNC history but fell just shy with 16 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocked shots.
Bacot said he believed Kessler had “the highest upside of all the bigs.” Kessler made way for the reserves to play after logging 24 minutes, but surely could have gotten two more blocks had he lobbied Williams to stay in the game.
“If I wanted to sleep tonight in my bed, I probably shouldn’t have said anything to coach so I didn’t,” Kessler joked. “I wasn’t really concerned about it. I was just happy to get the win.”
Carolina’s happy to have a Kessler and a Sharpe, who can be tapped and deliver a double-double to make up for the absence of their most experienced player.
Largely overshadowed by the work of the frontcourt on the boards and how many points the Heels put on the scoreboard, was how well they played defensively. Notre Dame ranks 19th in offensive efficiency according to Kenpom.com, but the Heels limited them to just 31 percent shooting from the floor — including just 6-for-31 in the second half.
In UNC’s 66-65 win on Jan. 2 , the Irish shot 11-for-30 from 3-point range. Carolina didn’t allow them to get the same open looks they had in Chapel Hill. Forward Nate Laszewski, who had 25 points in the first meeting including seven 3-pointers, was held to 13 points. He missed his only two attempts from behind the arc.
“We couldn’t let Laszewski get going, or (Prentiss) Hubb,” Bacot said. “I thought we went out and competed hard on defense. We got all the right rotations, we did a good job of communicating without our defensive leader Garrison.”
As to Brooks’ availability for the quarterfinal, Williams said he was not sure.
“I’d like to give an update, because that would mean I have one,” Williams said. “We thought he was going to be able to play up until (Wednesday). We didn’t practice him (Tuesday) except the warm up stuff. And I thought he would be able to go but it was still bothering him.”
CAROLINA CRUISING INTO QUARTERFINALS
UNC leads the Irish 85-49 with 7:15 left in the game. The Heels are currently on a 27-2 run that stomped out any chance of an Irish rally. Notre Dame hit its first two 3-pointers to start the second half and seemed poised for a rally to pull within single digits.
But Walker Kessler wasn’t having it. He had two of his seven blocked shots and scored on a jump hook that ended a three-minute scoring drought for UNC and ignited its run.
UNC LEADS AT HALFTIME
Carolina had its most productive first half of the season, running out to a 50-36 lead over Notre Dame. The Tar Heels previous high for first half points was 48 in its win over Louisville. The most surprising, and possibly most pleasing thing to see for coach Roy Williams, is that they committed only five turnovers while doing it.
Caleb Love leads the way with 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting from the field. Armando Bacot and Day’Ron Sharpe are also in double figures with 11 and 10 points, respectively.
Not to be overshadowed by their 30-15 dominance on the boards, the Heels turned in a solid defensive effort as well. The Irish made 11 3-pointers in their regular season meeting, but UNC has limited them to just 3-for-13 shooting from behind the arc.
HEELS FRONTCOURT LEADING THE WAY
The Heels lead 31-18 with 7:25 left in the first half.
Day’Ron Sharpe picked up where he left off in the Jan. 2 meeting against the Irish, when he scored a season-high 25 points. The freshman forward had six of the Heels first nine points and accounted for four of their first seven rebounds. Sharpe currently has eight points.
The Heels enjoyed a plus-23 rebounding margin in their regular season win over Notre Dame. And they’re taking full advantage of their size against the Irish. Carolina has already scored 13 second chance points on 14 offensive rebounds.
UNC forward Armando Bacot also has nine points on 4-for-5 shooting.
UNC forward Garrison Brooks twisted his left ankle in the regular season finale against Duke when he came down on Matthew Hurt’s foot after making a jumper. Brooks is dressed out and official word from UNC is he’s not being ruled out for the game. But he’s not participating in warmups although he is dressed out.
UNC replaced Brooks in the starting lineup with freshman Day’Ron Sharpe, who had 25 points against the Irish in the Tar Heels’ 66-65 regular season win. Caleb Love, Kerwin Walton, Leaky Black and Armando Bacot joining Sharpe in the starting lineup.
Notre Dame starters: Trey Wertz, Prentiss Hubb, Nikola Djogo, Juwan Durham, Nate Laszewski.