Contributions big and small lift UNC past Notre Dame in Greensboro

With all three big men saddled with foul trouble and the Irish making a run, Joel Berry stopped the bleeding with a momentum-changing jumper that sent the Tar Heels on to an 83-76 victory in Greensboro

Rob Kinnan—USA Today Sports
Feb 5

GREENSBORO — North Carolina made the most of its decided size advantage on Notre Dame for as long as it could Sunday. Then, just as it looked as though a once-comfortable lead might be starting to slip away, the Tar Heels turned things over to the smallest man on the court to make the biggest basket of the game. With all three big men saddled with foul trouble and the Irish making a run, Joel Berry stopped the bleeding with a momentum-changing jumper that sent his team on to an 83-76 victory in a game delayed by a day and moved to Greensboro Coliseum because of a water emergency in Chapel Hill. Berry’s jumper in the lane, on a day in which he was just 3 for 10 from the floor, sparked a decisive run of eight straight points that helped the Tar Heels (21-4, 9-2) regain control and hold onto sole possession of first place in the ACC. “Berry’s 15-footer was the shot of a big-time veteran guard who’s having a great year,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “(That) kind of stopped any belief for us.” That belief began to build about the same time UNC big men Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley started accumulating fouls on virtually every possession midway through the second half. The Tar Heel trio had feasted on their smaller opponent for the better part of the first 34 minutes while combining to amass 37 points, 20 rebounds and five blocked shots between them. UNC led 65-51 with just over 11 minutes remaining when one by one Meeks, Bradley and then Hicks all got into foul trouble. With the big men either on the bench or unable to play as aggressively as they had before, Notre Dame and its smaller lineup slowly began to creep back into contention. The Irish (17-7, 6-5) got as close as two when V.J. Beachem hit a 3-pointer from the right corner to cut the Tar Heel lead to 75-73. That’s when Berry, a 6-foot guard, answered right back with 3:33 left to play. As important as that basket was, especially in Brey’s eyes, it was a defensive possession moments later that made the biggest impact on the outcome of the game. It started with Nate Britt stealing the ball from Notre Dame’s Matt Farrell and ended with a Justin Jackson dunk that sent the crowd of 17.051 into a frenzy. Jackson led the Tar Heels with 16 points, one six UNC players to score in double figures. “It was a big shot, but getting a stop on the other end was just as big or even bigger,” Williams said of Berry’s clutch basket, “especially when we turned it into a basket by Justin.” The relocated game was the Tar Heels’ first in Greensboro since a loss to Notre Dame in the 2015 ACC tournament championship game. Although there was much less at stake on Sunday, the atmosphere in the building and the intensity on the court seemed more like March than the first week of February with a month still left in the regular season. Williams let his emotions show on the sideline after Meeks fouled out on a charging call with five minutes still remaining, then again moments later when Hicks was whistled for his third seconds later. “It was just a frustrating series of events there at that time period,” a much calmer Williams said afterward. “ACC basketball is always going to be emotional. There’s not many games decided where people try to get out of the parking lot early.” This one probably wouldn’t have fit that description no matter what the circumstances. But it might have been a lot less stressful down the stretch for the Tar Heels had they been able to keep pounding the ball inside as effectively as they did for the first three quarters of the game. Meeks was especially dominant on the offensive boards, with nine of his 11 points and six of his eight rebounds coming in the opening 20 minutes. The 6-foot-11 Bradley did most of his damage on lobs over his smaller defender while Hicks was able to get to the rim off the dribble seemingly at will. UNC outscored the Irish 24-8 in the paint and 10-4 on offensive rebounds during the first half, a success that carried over into the early stages of the second. “As the game went on we noticed that it was a strength to score in the paint,” said Bradley, who contributed 12 points, five rebounds and three blocks off the bench. “We just kept hitting with it, punching them left and right.” While the big guys softened Notre Dame up, it was the little gives that finished the Irish off. In addition to Jackson and Berry, who finished with 12 points and seven assists, UNC also got a boost from a resurgent Kenny Williams — who had his best game in a