New year, new happy ending for UNC basketball

Leaky Black's late basket and some uncharacteristic good luck on the final possession lifted the Tar Heels to a 66-65 win against Notre Dame

Leaky Black hits his game-winning shot over Notre Dame's Nate Laszewski to give UNC a 66-65 victory at Smith Center on Saturday (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

CHAPEL HILL — Leaky Black scored on a tough drive to the basket to give North Carolina a one-point lead on Notre Dame with 9.1 seconds remaining at Smith Center on Saturday.

But there wasn’t any celebrating on the part of the Tar Heels.

They’d been in virtually the same situation too many times over the past 12 months to start getting excited — especially since on most of those occasions things didn’t end well.

But a new year brought about a different ending.

Instead of watching helplessly as an opponent made a winning basket at the buzzer to break their hearts again, the final shot stayed out this time.

Juwan Durham’s baseline jumper hit the front of the rim and caromed out of bounds as time expired giving UNC a badly needed 66-65 victory in a game that was arranged only two days earlier after both teams’ scheduled opponents were forced to postpone because of COVID-19 issues.

“Last year I think we had six games that the other team made the last shot to win the game, so the difference between winning and losing is so slight,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said afterward.

“Leaky made a great drive to the basket and scored, and then we got a stop on the other end. Last year that ball kept going in, so I’m hopeful it will even out last year. It’s a good feeling right now, no question.”

If ever a team needed a reset after a forgettable 2020, it’s the Tar Heels, who followed up a 14-19 disaster — Williams’ first-ever losing season ever — by dropping its first two ACC games of the current campaign, both by close margins.

For a while Saturday, it looked as if the new year might start out looking like an extension of the old one when Notre Dame’s Nate Laszewski hit his seventh — and his team’s 11th — 3-point basket of the game, to give the Irish a 57-50 lead with 7:39 remaining.

It was at that point, the Tar Heels — freshman Day’Ron Sharpe, in particular — decided they’d had enough of losing.

After fellow freshman Caleb Love hit a 3-pointer to get the ball rolling, Sharpe took over inside by scoring the next six points to key a 9-0 run that flipped the script and put UNC (6-4, 1-2 ACC) back in the lead.

“We were 0-2 in the ACC and we just wanted to win,” Sharpe said. “So everybody played hard and was zoned in for the W.”

Sharpe was particularly focused.

He finished the game with a season-high 25 points, becoming the first Tar Heel this season to score more than 20 points in a game, while also pulling down nine rebounds in the best performance of his young career.

“I just ran to the rim and posted up,” the 6-foot-10 center said. “I was kind of hot and they couldn’t stop me from scoring, so I just kept going up.”

While Sharpe got the Tar Heels near the top of the proverbial hump, it was Black that finally got them over it with his clutch shot to beat the Irish (3-6, 0-3).

One possession earlier, Black made a similar move but missed the shot through contact. Given a second chance, he made a south running shot off the glass for what turned out to be the game-winner.

Although it wasn’t a play originally designed for him.

“I’m not sure what the play call was, but I’m pretty sure we were trying to get Kerwin the ball. But the play broke down,” Black said of freshman teammate Kerwin Walton, who finished with four 3-pointers and 12 points. “I had the ball pretty high at the top of the key and I just saw the baseline.

“The play before I felt like I got fouled, but I felt like I went soft. So I was in my head about it and made sure the next time I drove, I was going to go pretty strong.”

UNC didn’t shoot the ball well for most of the game, finishing at just 35% (24 of 69) overall and 8 of 23 from beyond the arc. 

But the Tar Heels compensated by outrebounding Notre Dame 48-27 with 21 of the rebounds coming on the offensive end. Even more important was their ability to protect the ball, something that’s been a problem during the early season. 

After committing five turnovers in the first five minutes, UNC coughed it up only three more times the rest of the game.

“It was probably the two biggest factors in the game that we didn’t turn the ball over, like we had been doing,” Williams said. “We had five about that first six or eight minutes and then the second thing is our job on the backboards and second-chance points for us. 

“It’s easy to do. I guess I just threatened them how much we were going to run if we kept turning the ball over so it’s pretty easy to figure out. That’s the truth.”