Notre Dame’s season ends with Elite Eight loss to North Carolina
Marek Mazurek | Wednesday, March 30, 2016
PHILADELPHIA — Two roads diverged on a yellow court.
And on Sunday night at Wells Fargo Center, No. 6-seeded Notre Dame took the same path as the 63 other teams that had already been eliminated from the NCAA tournament, as No. 1-seeded North Carolina finished off the Irish, 88-74.
“I’m very proud of this team,” senior forward Zach Auguste said. “We made a lot of shots. It wasn’t easy for us this year, coming off a great run last year and we had a lot of expectations on us. I’m proud of every single one of these guys in here. We fought. We worked hard in the offseason and we made a great run.”
North Carolina entered the night as the last remaining No. 1 seed as No. 10-seeded Syracuse knocked off Virginia earlier in the evening and Kansas and Oregon both lost Saturday.
And for a half, it looked like the Tar Heels (32-6, 14-4 ACC) were in some trouble as well.
The Irish (24-12, 11-7) reversed a recent trend and came out strong to hold a 10-6 lead three minutes into the game off six quick points from junior forward V.J. Beachem, who finished the opening frame with 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting, including a massive dunk with seven minutes to play in the half. Junior guard Demetrius Jackson joined Beachem in double-figures with a solid first half performance of 13 points as the Irish controlled the tempo with head coach Mike Brey’s patented “burn” offense.
“We knew we were going to have to put points on the board,” junior guard Steve Vasturia said. “Obviously they can really score the ball, so we wanted to come out and attack and knock down shots. You saw people hitting big shots all game, Demetrius [Jackson], V.J.[Beachem] and everybody.”
“I think in the first half we did a great job of controlling pace, getting their bigs out on ball screens, making them switch,” sophomore guard Matt Farrell said. “We did a good job controlling the first half.”
North Carolina took a 43-38 lead into halftime, however, thanks to a 16-for-24 shooting performance which included the Tar Heels going 4-of-6 from beyond the arc.
The Irish got off to sluggish start to the second half, falling behind 51-40 as North Carolina junior forward Kennedy Meeks rattled off eight consecutive points.
But Notre Dame had a run left in it. Over the next two and a half minutes, Mike Brey’s team scored 12 straight points to take a 52-51 lead with 13 minutes left to play. Jackson lead the Irish run with five points and an assist on a Zach Auguste alley oop.
“[I thought], ‘We’re right back in it’,” junior forward V.J. Beachem said. “We expected to be right there, that’s something that we’ve done all year when teams make runs — it seems like they’re gonna get away, we’re able to fight right back but we just weren’t able to finish it this time.”
Beachem finished his night with 18 points and was named to the East Region’s all-tournament team along with Jackson, who finished with 26 points and four assists. Irish head coach Mike Brey praised his point guard’s performance after the game.
“I thought Demetrius Jackson was just fabulous and controlled the whole game,” Brey said. “We quarterbacked the tempo, he quarterbacked our set. He was thoroughly exhausted, but we couldn’t afford to take him out of the game. He engineered the whole thing and I’m really thrilled with what he did.”
“He’s unbelievable. He’s just an unbelievable player,” Farrell said. “I think he was exhausted, but he still just kept doing his thing. It’s hard to guard him in ball screen — trust me, I try to do it every day. … It’s a lot of fun playing with him.”
Despite Jackson’s effort, Notre Dame looked on helplessly as North Carolina came roaring back with a 12-0 run of its own, capitalized by a thundering alley-oop dunk by junior forward Isaiah Hicks.
“You gotta give credit to Carolina,” Brey said of the Tar Heels’ run. “We took that one-point lead and they really answered it like men, and we didn’t have much left. They wore us down a little bit with their depth and their front line. And they shot the heck out of the ball. … My hat’s off to them.”
And North Carolina didn’t let up.
The Tar Heels held a 71-61 lead with six minutes remaining and closed the door on any hopes of an Irish comeback with, maintaining a double-digit lead for the rest of the game.
Offensive rebounds hurt the Irish down the home stretch as the Tar Heels grabbed four in the last 5:30 of the game with three of them coming from sophomore forward Justin Jackson.
In addition, the Tar Heels continued their dominant shooting performance from the first half to shoot 52 percent from the field to close the game. Tar Heel senior forward Brice Johnson was particularly effective, scoring 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting en route to being named the region’s most outstanding player.
“I’m sitting there thinking they’ve got to miss one — is Brice Johnson, can he just miss one? Can he just help us a little bit?,” Brey said. “I give them credit, man. And they got every 50/50 ball. And again I think their bodies were fresher because they play some more guys.”
North Carolina closed out the 88-74 victory by making nine consecutive free throws and will head to Houston to face fellow ACC foe Syracuse (23-12, 9-9) in the Final Four next Saturday.
The Irish, however, head back to South Bend to prepare for next year. And though the team could not pull out yet another come-from-behind victory, Beachem acknowledged the run this year’s Irish squad made.
“To do the things that we did with the target on our back this year, to get back in the same position where pretty much nobody expected us to be here, it was great,” Beachem said. “I love these guys, they’re like the brothers I never had.”