Toughness. That’s the watchword from tonight’s comeback win over the North Carolina Tar Heels. In a game that had all the sights and smells of a blowout in the first half, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish hung tough and were able to hand #1/#2 UNC its second loss in as many games.
Initially, both teams traded baskets, seemingly feeling each other out. Following the first media timeout, it became clear that the UNC defense was not going to allow the Irish any comfortable shots. At the same time, the ND defense showed an inability to get stops that has distressed fans throughout this season. In addition, the Tar Heels were out-rebounding the Irish 25 to 15 at the half.
While all this was going on, star UNC guard Marcus Paige, almost miraculously, pulled himself out of a nasty shooting slump. He was shooting 4/5 at the half, all of them three-pointers. It is another distressing theme, along with porous defense, that slumping or average shooters regularly have career nights against the Irish. As a result, the teams broke for the half with a 39-30 advantage for the Tar Heels.
The one bright spot for the Fighting Irish was Zach Auguste, who nearly had a double double in the first half with 13 points and 7 rebounds. He played with toughness and poise that everyone knows he has, but everyone wishes they saw every night. Demetrius Jackson and Bonzie Colson rounded out the first half scoring with 7 and 6 points respectively. The offense was not able to get in rhythm throughout the half. Much of that needs to be attributed to UNC’s tough defense, but it was obvious to see that there was a lack of execution on the part of the Irish.
Coming out of halftime, the Irish offense began to come alive. While Zach Auguste continued to be solid, he took a backseat to a surging V.J. Beachem (10PTS, 1AST) and Demetrius Jackson (19PTS, 6REB, 2AST). Steve Vasturia, who was ice cold in the first half would finish with a respectable 13 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals. The Irish offense was certainly playing at a much higher level than it had in the first half, but it was the UNC turnovers that made the whole comeback possible. The Irish would finish +11 in turnover margin, only committing 2 themselves.
Bonzie Colson (19PTS, 10REB) was everywhere in the second half, making plays on both ends of the court. Everything he did, he did hard. He drove the lane hard. He went after loose balls hard. He grabbed boards hard. There were times last year where under the cool guiding hands of Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, Bonzie Colson had been an emotional spark for the team in tough moments. He certainly looked like that again tonight.
Another element of the comeback was ND's performance on the glass. Both teams were virtually tied in total rebounds (41-40 in favor of UNC), but by the end of the game the Irish had out-rebounded the Tar Heels by a margin of 20-15 on the offensive glass. UNC's defense was not giving up easy shots to the Irish; however, they simply could not finish off a possession when Notre Dame had the ball.
With just over 30 seconds left in the game, the Irish led 77-74. Freshman Rex Pflueger fouled Marcus Paige away from the ball who, with UNC in the double bonus, proceeded to hit the pair. Demetrius Jackson was fouled on the ensuing possession, and he was able to make both of his shots to extend the lead to three. UNC got the ball back with 19 tics left on the clock, but the Notre Dame defense was able to do something with which they have struggled all year: forced an opposing shooter into a tough shot. Marcus Paige had to settle for a contested three from the top of the arc, which he missed. Steve Vasturia grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He missed his first free throw, but was able to sink the second, extending the lead to four.
In the last 8 seconds, UNC pushed hard for a score, but Joel Berry II missed the layup and Zach Auguste, who had been quiet throughout the second half and at that point was playing with four fouls, grabbed the rebound. Auguste proceeded to miss both of his attempts from the charity stripe, but was able to sum up the entire night’s performance by grabbing the rebound off his own miss. In retrospect the missed free throws at the end of the game were a touch ironic, as ND was able to fight its way back into this game with its success at the line. The Irish would finish 31-38 in that department.
This game was a grind from beginning to end, but Notre Dame’s toughness paid off. Both Bonzie Colson and Zach Auguste (15PTS, 10REB) recorded double doubles. Notre Dame was able to take advantage of UNC’s mistakes while limiting its own. This is the kind of performance of which these young men are capable. There’s been chatter about whether or not this is a season saving win. The only way we’ll know is if the Irish build on it as they open a tough stretch playing four of five away. The toughness is there, the will is there; just make it happen.