No. 7 North Carolina cruises to the ACC tournament final with blowout of Notre Dame

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Stilman White isn’t a walk-on, but for all intents and purposes, he’s North Carolina’s victory cigar. The kid that started during the second weekend of the 2012 NCAA tournament in place of the injured Kendall Marshall may be on scholarship, but the minutes he gets come when the Tar Heels have a win firmly in hand.

On Friday night, in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, as the Tar Heels were taking on No. 4 seed Notre Dame, White got on the floor with 3:11 left on the clock, just the second time this season he’s played more than three minutes in a game.

UNC was up by 35 points at the time.

They would go on to win 78-47, the second-most lopsided result in ACC tournament history.

That is what this North Carolina team is capable of doing when they get it rolling. Performances like this are why, all season long, even when the Tar Heels have struggled to win close games, pundits have said that UNC’s ceiling is as high as anyone in the country; that their best night is good enough to beat just about anyone else’s best night.

And on Friday, we saw their best night.

Marcus Paige seemingly snapped out of the brutal shooting funk that he has been mired in, finishing with 16 points and seven assists, hitting 4-for-7 from beyond the arc. Isaiah Hicks had 11 points and 15 boards. Joel Berry II was hitting shots. As a team, the Tar Heels — who ranked outside the top 300 in three-point shooting during the regular season — shot 6-for-15 from three a night after they shot 6-for-14 from three in a win over Pitt.

“I’m not surprised,” Paige said after the game. “I know I’m capable of playing at this level. It was just a matter of time until I got my confidence back.”

After Friday afternoon’s win over Pitt, Paige told NBCSports.com of his shooting woes that “it’s all between the ears” and “mental”. Prior to Friday night’s eruption, he had been shooting 32.2 percent from the floor and 26.3 percent from three in the last 16 games, a period that stretched exactly half of the season. It wasn’t that he suddenly lost the ability to shoot, it was that he would think about his slump whenever he was shooting. The yips, as Tin Cup would call it.

His teammates could see him pressing and getting frustrated, but Paige didn’t let the slump effect the other parts of his game — “He scored eight points last night and acted like he had 30,” Kennedy Meeks said. — they knew that it was only going to be a matter of time before he snapped out of it. He just needed a night where a couple of those threes dropped. On Friday, he hit his first, he hit another later in the half and, before the break, buried a step-back three that pushed UNC’s lead to 13 and helped spur the Heels onto a 24-0 run that put the game away.

“That was a big weight off my back,” Paige said.

“We could have booked our travel home at halftime,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said.

And while Paige is going to be the guy that gets written about after this game, the real difference for North Carolina came on the defensive end of the floor. Notre Dame has the nation’s sixth-best offense, according to KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric, and one of the knocks on this Carolina team is that they are anything but an elite defensive team, particularly against ball-screen actions. Those ball-screen actions are Brey’s, and star point guard Demetrius Jackson’s, bread-and-butter.

That’s what they do.

That’s how they’re able to win games despite the fact that they are severely undersized in the front court and struggle on the defensive end of the floor.

And the Tar Heels held them to 47 points and a crisp 0.681 points-per-possession.

“Their defense was a different level than what we’ve seen,” Brey said.

“Our defense is definitely peaking,” Paige added. We turned the corner a little bit defensively these past several weeks.”

So the question becomes whether or not this was a blip.

Can North Carolina bring this kind of defensive intensity for four more weeks? Is Marcus Paige out of his shooting slump — he’s 6-for-12 from three during the ACC tournament — or did he just take advantage of the oft-porous defenses of Pitt and Notre Dame?

That’s not a question that can be answered in any column written by any reporter. Neither is the question of whether or not they can win the tough games and execute in the big moments. It’s not a secret that the Tar Heels are front runners; they’ll run away from you when they get it going, but if you punch them in the mouth, so to speak, they may not be getting up off of the canvas.

That’s something that UNC is going to have to prove to us in March, and this performance was a step towards that result.

“We’re definitely hitting our stride,” said Paige. “I still don’t know what our ‘peak’ is, which is probably a good thing.”