Notre Dame set for Elite Eight showdown with North Carolina
Alex Carson | Saturday, March 26, 2016
PHILADELPHIA — The season series will be settled Sunday night.
Notre Dame won the regular-season contest, 80-76, while North Carolina took home a decisive triumph in the ACC tournament, 78-47.
But this time, a trip to the Final Four is on the line for the sixth-seeded Irish (24-11, 11-7 ACC) and No. 1-seed Tar Heels (31-6, 14-4).
Perhaps the biggest difference between Feb. 6’s Irish win at Purcell Pavilion and the North Carolina blowout victory March 11 in Washington were turnovers: When Notre Dame topped the Tar Heels in February, it turned the ball over just twice. Two weeks ago in the loss, the Irish committed 17.
Notre Dame’s high turnover figures in the second game allowed the Tar Heels to play on the break, something North Carolina sophomore forward Justin Jackson said was key to his team’s ACC tournament win.
“We were able to force them into a whole lot more turnovers which got us out in transition, which is when we’re at our best,” Justin Jackson said. “ … That’s the first thing, whenever we can force them into one shot and get out in transition, that’s when we’re at our best.”
Irish junior forward V.J. Beachem agreed, saying the Irish need to keep the pace slow.
“We can’t let them speed us up,” Beachem said. “Offensively and defensively, we’ve gotta really keep them off the glass. We may not win the rebounding battle, but they can’t dominate the glass.”
Fans in Philadelphia saw an impressive offensive performance from North Carolina on Friday, when the Tar Heels hit triple digits in a 101-86 win over Indiana.
“We know we play a team that I think is playing the best in the country right now,” Brey said. “They seem to have put it all together. And we certainly saw it up close and personal in Washington, D.C. in the semifinals of the ACC tournament.”
The most notable part of North Carolina’s performance Friday may have been its strong shooting performance from behind the arc, where the Tar Heels went 11-for-20 from deep. While those 3-pointers accounted for fewer than one third of North Carolina’s points against Indiana, it showed another route of attack for a team usually known for its inside presence.
“Everybody knows how hard they are to defend in the post,” Irish junior guard Steve Vasturia said. “They’ve got a lot of big bodies, but they can shoot the ball as well. So it’s going to be a challenge for us to keep them off the glass and out of the paint but also a challenge contesting jump shots.”
Down low, Sunday’s matchup will feature a battle of two double-double machines, where Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste and North Carolina’s Brice Johnson are set to go to work. Both senior forwards have 22 double-doubles this year, trailing only LSU’s star freshman Ben Simmons among Power Five schools.
“He’s tough, he’s versatile, he’s long and lanky. Strong as well,” Auguste said of Johnson. “He makes it tough for guys to guard him. He can turn around and shoot [jump shots], he’s always on the glass, and he’s a ridiculous athlete.”
While Notre Dame’s run to the Elite Eight has been punctuated by late-game drama, Beachem has been the most consistent Irish player, averaging 17.3 points per game in the NCAA tournament, including a team-high 19 in Friday’s 61-56 win over Wisconsin.
“I feel like I can knock down any shot and make any play right now,” Beachem said. “It’s just really our movement offensively: We’ve all been getting great looks, especially in the second half of games. That’s something that we’ve got to be ready to do from the tip Sunday.”
On the topic of slow starts, sophomore guard Matt Farrell agreed with Beachem, saying Notre Dame needed to avoid yet another one to have a chance Sunday.
“One of our coaches always preaches about good starts,” Farrell said. “ … A lot of games we’ve been down ten or we’ve always dug a hole. We can’t do that [Sunday]. That’s what happened last time: We dug a hole and eventually it was too deep and we couldn’t come back from it, so a good start is huge for us [Sunday].”
If Notre Dame wins Sunday, it will head to the Final Four for the second time in school history — and Brey said Digger Phelps, who coached the Irish to the 1978 Final Four, never lets Brey forget his accomplishments.
“My big brother, Digger, reminds me — he’ll remind me weekly what happened there,” Brey said.