Less than an hour after No. 1 Oklahoma lost to Kansas State, No. 2 North Carolina fell on the road against Notre Dame, 80-76.
The Tar Heels led by 15 points with two minutes left in the first half. They were still up double-figures with 16 minutes left in the game, but the Irish made more plays down the stretch and, quite frankly, were the tougher team in crunch time.
The final sequence was a microcosm of the second half. With North Carolina down 80-76 and 10 seconds left, Notre Dame let the Tar Heels roll the ball all the way to their own three-point line. Joel Berry II picked the ball up and went in for a relatively uncontested layup … that he bricked. Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He missed the front end of a one-and-one, but he was able to knock the ball out of Brice Johnson’s hands and run out the clock.
That’s the way it went for most of the second half.
Notre Dame shot just 34.8 percent from the floor and 3-for-16 from three, but they got to the foul line 38 times, they finished with 20 offensive boards — 12 came in the second half, when UNC only got 10 defensive boards — and they snagged seemingly every loose ball.
Combine that with the fact that the Tar Heels had fits trying to defend Notre Dame’s ball-screens, and this is what you get.
Bonzie Colson led the way with 19 points and 10 boards for UNC, and if you need any more examples for why I’m saying that the Irish won this game because they were tougher, this is it. Colson is 6-foot-5 on a good day, and he posted a double-double with six offensive boards against a front line that includes Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks. He posted 13 of those points and seven of those boards (four offensive) in the second half.
So congratulations to Notre Dame.
This is a big win for them.
But it’s also the kind of loss that we’ve seen far too often with this North Carolina team. Seeing them get pushed around like this is not exactly new. They’re big and strong and athletic and talented … and soft. They’re the most talented team in the country but there is no one on this team that you could call a junkyard dog.
“I’ve got a wonderful bunch of kids, but we’ve got to decide that we want to compete when it’s tough, not just when it’s easy,” Roy Williams said.
As one coaching friend puts it, “they don’t have MFers, and it’s hard to win without them.”
That’s why the team that, on paper, should be the best in the country is not. That’s why they lose games on the road and why they’ve made a reputation out of underperforming in the last few years.
The good news?
They’re not the only flawed team in college basketball this season.
Which is why the Tar Heels can certainly still win either ACC title and reach a Final Four, especially if the Marcus Paige we got tonight — 19 points, 5-for-7 from three — is the Marcus Paige we get for the rest of the season.
But if you’re wondering why North Carolina loses games like this, games where their opponent shoots 34.2 percent while erasing a 15-point deficit, you have your answer.