SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Zach Auguste dribbled out the final seconds Saturday night with an eye down the floor. Once the buzzer sounded, and the backboard at the other end lit up red, the Notre Dame senior forward spiked the ball to the floor and let out a primal roar.
It was just another emphatic gesture by the Fighting Irish, at a very crucial juncture.
A stout second half propelled Notre Dame to an 80–76 upset of No. 2 North Carolina, which led by as many as 15 points early but now relinquished first place in the ACC with its second road loss in a row. Here are three thoughts off the action at a jam-packed Purcell Pavilion:
Marcus Paige looked like Marcus Paige again, and the Tar Heels were miserable anyway
In his last six games, the stalwart senior guard was a mess offensively: Just 12 of 56 from the floor, including a total of five made three-pointers across those half-dozen outings. A visit to northwest Indiana in February proved healing, with Paige scoring 21 points on 7-of-12 efficiency from the field, including five three-pointers against Notre Dame alone.
“It can help me personally,” Paige said in a solemn visitors’ locker room, “but until we find a combination of five guys that can step up and defend and finish the defense with a box out, it doesn’t matter.”
That’s as succinct a takeaway as anyone could muster. North Carolina allowed just 35% shooting for the game and even a manageable 41.2% in the second half, when the Fighting Irish surged back. But they couldn’t defend cleanly enough, with Notre Dame earning 31 points from the free-throw line. And a gargantuan frontline was allergic to defensive rebounds to close out possessions, allowing the Irish an absurd 20 offensive rebounds (by comparison, Notre Dame managed just 20 defensive rebounds all game).
“We didn’t play tough enough today,” Tar Heels forward Brice Johnson said.
And that wiped out whatever good feelings Paige’s shooting renaissance created. North Carolina looked feeble against a team that probably won’t be near the toughest club it faces down the stretch. UNC couldn’t get stops, defensive boards or get out in running lanes.
“You have to find the desire to stop your man,” Paige said. “We’d like to impose our style of play on them. We can’t do that if we can’t guard.”
The second half of Notre Dame’s ACC schedule is no joke, and this result was desperately needed
We remind you that this Fighting Irish team, which just upset the No. 2 outfit in the country, was bludgeoned for most of a not-as-close-as-it-seemed nine-point loss at Miami three days earlier. And after this, Notre Dame travels to Clemson for a game on Monday. That is followed by a visit from Louisville next weekend. After that, it’s three straight conference road tests.
Had the Fighting Irish remained on their post-Miami trajectory, they would have been bound for life on the NCAA tournament bubble, at best. The victory over the Tar Heels at least stanches the bleeding and renews some belief.
“It’s a huge resume win,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “When you look at our resume, you’ve got Iowa on a neutral court, you’ve got Duke at Cameron [Indoor Stadium], which I think will continue to be a good win, and you’ve got these guys. The resume is pretty strong. Maybe we can sneak into that old double-bye territory [at the ACC tournament] and take it from there.”
It’s easy, of course, to muster energy and resolve at home. Notre Dame always has been proficient at that (and it placed five players in double figures despite its early struggles Saturday). It will have to take that show on the road to be in a good place in the bracket come Selection Sunday.
Is the Fighting Irish’s offensive shift more sustainable for the long haul?
Notre Dame hit just three three-pointers on Saturday, and none for the first 26 minutes of the game. But what has been such a significant weapon for Brey’s clubs in the past has been somewhat devalued in 2015–16. Entering Saturday, Notre Dame ranked 111th nationally in three-pointers made with 169, and 195th with 443 attempted. Last year, the Irish’s 302 makes from long range were good for 12th in the country.
Asked about the drift toward the rim instead of the arc, Brey pointed to personnel: He and his staff have encouraged leading perimeter scorers Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia to be more aggressive, to drive the lane more often, instead of settling for looks from distance. Given that Jackson, the 6'1" junior guard, is built like a small tank, it’s a fairly wise philosophy.
“We’re playing differently,” Brey said. “It starts with Demetrius and Steve. Once we’re in the bonus, they’re going for first downs a lot of times. They’re going through dudes to try to get a call. And you get the call with the new rules.”
Indeed, Notre Dame’s 38 free throw attempts helped keep the Irish afloat and ultimately pushed them over the top Saturday. Especially in the postseason, that seems a much less volatile approach: focusing on repeated jabs and body blows instead of relying on the haymaker and losing heart when it doesn’t come. Naturally, the Irish’s defense, which came in as the nation’s 223rd most efficient, is the primary concern. But hoisting from the line at 15 feet from the rim, as opposed to the one a few steps beyond it, might give Notre Dame more of a chance in March. It certainly worked Saturday.