CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina was supposed to be the tired basketball team, playing its third game in five days. Instead it was the Tar Heels that left their opponent gasping for air with an impressive finishing kick.
Coach Roy Williams’ 14th-ranked Tar Heels shook off its own fatigue and a feisty Notre Dame team over the final 9½ minutes to turn a one-point advantage into an 83-66 victory at Smith Center.
The win finished off a grueling, though successful, stretch that saw UNC beat Duke, NC State and the shorthanded Irish within the span of just 96 hours to thrust itself back into contention for a top-four seed and double bye in the upcoming ACC tournament.
“I’m not going to lie, I thought it was going to be tough for us to wear them down because we were playing three games in five days,” said senior guard Theo Pinson, who led the late charge while finishing with 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
“We ended up wearing them down. We’re conditioned for this type of thing, so we did a good job tonight.”
That may have been the case during a second half in which the Tar Heels shot 56.7 percent from the floor and turned the ball over only twice. But their coach was anything but happy after an opening 20 minutes in which their defense left plenty to be desired.
Even though they held Notre Dame point guard Matt Farrell to a dismal 0 for 9 first-half shooting performance, their inability to handle the Irish’s ball screens allowed him to ring up five assists — most of them to teammate John Mooney for open 3-pointers.
And Williams let his team hear about it.
“I don’t curse a lot and don’t go rant-and-raving crazy, but nobody could see what I said at halftime,” Williams said. “I went rant-and-raving crazing, slobbering and all that stuff. Then I said, ’OK, that’s over with’ and let everybody else coach.”
His message apparently got through, because the Tar Heels responded by opening up their first double-digit lead at 56-46 with 13:10 remaining. But just when it appeared as though UNC had finally put its opponent away, the Irish came roaring right back with an 11-2 run that narrowed the gap to just a single point.
The Tar Heels (20-7, 9-5 ACC) were still clinging to a four-point lead when Mooney went to the line for three shots after being fouled by Kenny Williams.
After going 6 for 6 from 3-point range en route to a team-leading 18 points, the free throws figured to be money in the bank for Mooney. Instead, he missed all three. Pinson then scored on the other end to spark a 17-4 UNC run that ended only after Roy Williams cleared his bench in the final minute.
“That was a big momentum swinger for him to miss three shots,” Pinson said. “We just went out there and tried to play as hard as we could.”
Even with the difficult circumstances, the strong finish shouldn’t have come as a surprise for the Tar Heels. They are quickly turning second-half surges into their trademark.
In its last six games, starting with its home loss to NC State on Jan. 27, UNC has shot 56.7 percent from the floor in the second half. It has shot 52.9 percent over the final 20 minutes in five of those games, including a blistering 78.1 percent Saturday at State.
That game against the Wolfpack seemed to take a lot physically out of Maye, who went 3 for 11 and scored just eight points two days after torching NC State for 33. Williams said he was also concerned about Joel Berry, who had to make an emergency trip to the dentist earlier in the day to deal with a painful tooth.
He shouldn’t have been.
The senior point guard went 8 of 15 from the floor for 21 points while leading four Tar Heels in double figures. Kenny Williams added 14 points and Cameron Johnson had 13 in a performance that didn’t surprise Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.
“Sometimes people look at like it’s a disadvantage that they played three games in five days,” said Brey, whose team fell to 15-11 (5-8). “The players love it. They’re in a good rhythm. Sometimes when you’re playing well, you don’t want to mess with it in practice. Just put the uniform on and play again, and I think they’ve really found a great rhythm in this stretch.”
That, Kenny Williams said, is a tribute to UNC conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian and trainer Doug Halverson.
“My legs really weren’t as bad as I thought they were going to be going into it,” the junior guard said. “A lot of credit goes to them for being aware of the stretch we were going into and helping us out as much as they could.”