SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Yet another probing North Carolina hand interrupted another lackluster Notre Dame pass on Saturday, and the only effective way to halt another jet-propelled fast break soon came into focus. Tar Heels freshman Nate Britt dove on the loose ball he created. Irish players jumped on top of him, wrestling for possession. Officials then whistled for a stoppage, both to call a jump ball and to allow Britt to reinsert the contact lens jarred out of place in the scramble.
A pile-up and vision correction: This was the last available strategy for stopping North Carolina, and even then it only delayed the inevitable. A 73-62 win at Notre Dame made it five in a row for the resuscitated Tar Heels, and it was auspiciously a victory much like the others, with an active defense producing 17 turnovers that produced easy transition opportunities. There was even a start as frosty as the ground outside to overcome with some poise and resolve. It’s time to dare to wonder, yet again, if North Carolina figured things out.
“It’s just a mindset we have to have, that we’ve had the past five games -- no one is going to beat us,” Tar Heels forward J.P. Tokoto said. “It’s a mentality we had in a few games early on in the season, but in the losses that we shouldn’t have lost, you can totally tell the sense of urgency wasn’t there. Guys weren’t rotating right, weren’t helping a teammate, weren’t giving it their all. I think we made a huge, huge jump in our game.”
The debate over the truth in that can spill into a week that should prove it one way or another. Just one victim during the Tar Heels’ current streak had a winning ACC record entering Saturday, and that was Clemson, which famously has an 0-for-history streak in Chapel Hill. But here come Duke and Pittsburgh to the Smith Center, just as North Carolina comes on again.
Takeaways produced another win Saturday. What, if anything, the Tar Heels give back next week might define the season at last.
“I’m not saying I don’t like this, but I’m sure as dickens not going to say we’re going to win the next 26 because we’ve won five games in a row,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “But I like the way we’re doing some things and I think the kids have gotten more confident and that’s a huge part of it.
“We’d have a great game and then we’d have a terrible game, but I think we’re much more consistent now. The kids are much more confident and believe in what were doing. But we got some big-time games left. Can’t remember who it is we play next, but we got some big time games.”
Of course, everyone knew full well which teams come next. It’s increasingly apparent North Carolina recognized full well, too, the brand of sound, opportunistic defense they had to play in order to rescue a year nearly hurled into a tire fire not long ago. In the previous four wins, only one opponent cracked one point per possession against the Tar Heels. Notre Dame shot 45.5 percent overall and 50 percent in the second half Saturday, but the Tar Heels forced 17 turnovers that became 23 points at the other end, points that arrived often via backboard-rattling dunks. After failing to identify shooters or protect the rim early, North Carolina established a thicket of long, athletic bodies in the lane and challenged enough on the perimeter to goad Notre Dame into missing 15 of its last 17 attempts from long range.
Doing that occasionally got North Carolina the uneven results it deserved through 22 games. Doing that consistently got North Carolina the belief it needs through the last five. “That’s where they’ve gotten better since the beginning of the ACC season – they are really defending,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “When you get in the lane, there’s not a whole lot of room to finish with the bodies they have in there. When you turn the ball over at your own three-point line, you’re putting a lot of pressure on your transition defense.”
Saturday established an invaluable reference point as a combustible Duke offense and deliberate Pittsburgh attack visit next week. The Tar Heels know getting out and running more is critical to consistent, high-level success, not just flashes of it. Williams said earlier this week his team isn’t playing fast enough for his liking. But North Carolina must dig in for stops before it can go.
Appropriately enough in South Bend -- presumably the nation’s leader in skyscraper-tall snow piles -- the Tar Heels did plenty of digging. They just flat relieved Notre Dame of the ball several times, especially in the second half, and nearly every one paid off with an easy score to help break the game open. On the first sequence after halftime, James Michael McAdoo broke up a pass on the wing and, almost in one fluid motion, collected the ball and flung it to a streaking Leslie McDonald for a breakaway dunk.
Not long after, Tokoto sized up Notre Dame’s Austin Burgett on the perimeter. The thud of Tokoto’s palm against leather could be heard across the floor on press row. The Tar Heels’ sophomore swingman removed the ball from Burgett, gained speed with every step up the floor and finished with a percussive two-handed flush for a 10-point lead. A resigned, grimacing Brey then tapped an official on the hip to ask for a timeout, knowing too well what sequences like that meant for the Tar Heels’ rhythm.
Even standard defensive holds produced run-outs that nourished North Carolina like few other teams. A simple missed second-half three-pointer from Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton turned into an alley-oop layup from Brice Johnson seconds later. “It definitely swings it for us,” Tokoto said. “A big dunk for anybody on the team gets everybody going, to try to get another stop to get another one. That’s what we did today. Those kinds of plays get he energy up.”
This is the stuff that makes people want to believe in North Carolina, the signs of any sort of reliability and maturity settling in. Notre Dame is middling but nevertheless can make things far too interesting on its home floor with just a hint of confidence. The Irish’s 4-for-4 start from three-point range was a big hint. So the Tar Heels steadfastly assessed the damage and the reasons for it and made the necessary repairs, instead of coming unglued.
“We were letting them run what we call ‘dummy’ offense, where there was no defense,” Tar Heels guard Marcus Paige said. “Once we started taking them out of what they could do it allowed us to settle in defensively and get more stops. That’s one of the things we’ve gotten better at, being able to not lose our composure.”
North Carolina has gone from four losses in five games and an ostensible ferry ride to the NIT netherworld to five straight victories. Now it goes into a week that could add some rocket fuel to the whole thing. Williams predictably flinched at that, insisting he remains nowhere close to satisfied. “Armageddon is coming around the corner if we don’t play great,” he said.
It’s a fair apprehension. North Carolina has been here before and then it has been nowhere soon after. The wins over Michigan State, Kentucky and Louisville. The losses to Belmont and Alabama-Birmingham and Wake Forest. It is a team capable of so much and so little. In an aggressive, dependable defense that fuels a high-octane offense, it may have discovered the plan and the determination to accomplish more instead of less.
“We had the realization that if we want to be great and we want to be noticed,” McAdoo said, “you have to win.” In not too long, everyone will know if North Carolina is at last equipped to keep doing that.