The North Carolina bench cheers a play during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, in Washington , Thursday, March 10, 2016. North Carolina defeated Pittsburgh 88-71. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Steve Helber
January 04, 2015

North Carolina is one of several highly-ranked teams out to prove it's a postseason player, and the first task will be claiming its first ACC tournament title since 2008.

The seventh-ranked Tar Heels can take a step toward accomplishing both goals by finally solving Notre Dame on Friday night in Washington D.C.

Nearly a year after winning the ACC championship as part of three straight victories in this series, the Fighting Irish are back in the semifinals as the fourth seed.

Top-seeded North Carolina (26-6) has floated around the top 10 in the national rankings all season and ultimately outlasted the rest of the league's powers for its 30th regular-season title. However, Notre Dame (21-10) won the only matchup between the two last month and can beat the Tar Heels in the tournament for a second straight year.

The teams reached the ACC final last March 14 and the Irish pulled out a 90-82 victory behind Zach Auguste's 16 points and 13 rebounds. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson combined for 44 points for UNC, but none of their teammates reached double figures.

It was Demetrius Jackson and Bonzie Colson who paced Notre Dame in last month's regular-season meeting, scoring 19 points apiece in an 80-76 home win Feb. 6.

"(It gives us the) advantage of we beat them in the regular season," Colson said. "But that doesn't mean anything as of now. ... they've grown since then, we've grown since then. We're ready."

A repeat performance would be especially difficult if the Tar Heels play the way they did in the quarterfinals.

North Carolina dismantled eighth-seeded Pittsburgh 88-71, hitting 58.9 percent from the field to match the 10th-best shooting performance in ACC tournament history.

Johnson finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds, and Joel Berry II added 20 points in the Tar Heels' third straight win. They used a 10-0 run late in the first half to grab a 39-35 lead at the break and stepped on the gas in the final 20 minutes.

"Just having the balance of the inside-outside attack, that helped us out a lot," said Berry, who made 7 of 8 shots. "In the second half, I think we got better movement than we did in the first half. That was a big key."

The Tar Heels shot just 38.3 percent while averaging 75.5 points in wins over Syracuse and Duke entering the tournament, but they still led the conference with 82.9 points per game in the regular season.

A stunning comeback made Notre Dame their semifinal opponent instead of the rival Blue Devils. The Fighting Irish rallied from 16 down in the second half for Thursday's 84-79 overtime win over fifth-seeded Duke.

Auguste (19 points, 22 rebounds) and Colson (12 and 12) dominated in the paint, which coach Mike Brey said would be a key Friday night.

North Carolina leads the ACC with 41.1 rebounds per game, nearly five more than Notre Dame's 36.2, but Auguste and Colson each hauled in 10 on Feb. 6 to keep UNC's edge on the glass at 41-40. The Irish also had 20 offensive boards, one shy of a season high.

The Irish averaged just 59.3 points on 39.5 percent shooting while losing three of four from Feb. 20-March 2. They shot 50 percent in Saturday's 89-75 victory over North Carolina State, though - a number they matched against the Blue Devils.

"(Thursday) was the ultimate 'backs against the wall,'" Brey said. "But I'm really not surprised, 'cause when they get believing and talking and running themselves, they're pretty darn good."

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