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Off the cuff: UNC’s Paige said the getting to the Final Four is sweeter since the Tar Heels have been able to answer critics who doubted they were tough enough to win the ACC much less get to the Final Four. “We don’t want it to stop,” he said. “It’s been a special ride.”

The Tar Heels will have a chance to keep that ride going when they face ACC foe Syracuse in the second game of the Final Four Saturday at 8:49 p.m. in Houston.


Tar Heels 101, Indiana 86
Heels run by Irish; heading to Final 4

North Carolina will be heading to Houston. The Tar Heels defeated fellow ACC team Notre Dame 88-74. It’s the NCAA record 19th appearance for a Carolina team in the Final Four. (3/27)

The game was in doubt after Notre Dame rallied from a 51-40 deficit to take a 52-51 lead behind Demetrius Jackson, who led the Irish with a game-high 26 points. During the 12-0 run, UNC’s Brice Johnson picked up a technical foul for throwing the ball over his shoulder in frustration.

Johnson left the game with three fouls. UNC’s Marcus Paige stopped the bleeding with a strong move to the basket for two to give Carolina the lead at 53-52. The Tar Heels would never trail again as that bucket started a 12-0 run.

“They made a great run and we made a great run right back at ’em,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.

Theo Pinson, who jokingly tried to horn in on a press conference recently, earned a trip to the press table with several big plays including a strong offensive rebound and put back that drew Williams’ praise. During the run, Pinson drove the left side of the lane for a layup. Then he threw an assist lob to Isaiah Hicks on a play where four Heels touched the ball in transition after a Paige steal. That capped the run to make it 63-52 midway through the second half.

It never got closer than eight again as the Heels worked the margin up to a game-high 17 at 88-71 late in the game.

“Brice made that mistake but I’m glad we overcame that,” said UNC’s Kennedy Meeks who scored eight straight points to start the second half and finished with 10 points “This team is always going to fight back.”

Despite Johnson’s “mistake,” he picked up the East Regional Most Outstanding Player award. Johnson led the Heels with 25 points and 12 rebounds. It was his UNC record 23rd double-double for him this season.

“I apologize for that technical foul. It sparked their run,” Johnson said adding that he should be a better leader than that. “My teammates stepped up.”

It was the fifth consecutive game that five Heels have scored in double figures. After Johnson’s 25, Marcus Paige had 13, Joel Berry and Justin Jackson had 11 each and Meeks had 10.

Both teams shot well as Carolina hit 61.5 percent while Notre Dame hit 55 percent. The Irish’s strategy of being deliberate on offense was working for a while because of their hot shooting and their six first-half three pointers.

But Carolina was shooting well itself and managed a 43-38 halftime lead. Meeks’ offensive explosion put Carolina in control before Notre Dame’s big run.

“We knew they’d have a run,” UNC’s Justin Jackson said. “We responded pretty well and we never let up.”

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey agreed with that assessment. “You have to give credit to Carolina. We took that one-point lead and they answered like men and wore us down a little bit,” he said. “I think they are playing the best of anybody left.”


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