PHILADELPHIA — All year long, we’ve been waiting to get a glimpse of Peak Carolina.
If it wasn’t their three-point shooting that was an issue, it was their defensive rebounding. When that problem was solved, it was their ability to defend, period. When they spent the ACC tournament proving to every doubter that made their way into the team’s group text that they’re tough when they decide they want to, it was Marcus Paige’s half-season slump that kept the bandwagoners at bay.
On Friday, we finally saw it. We finally got a glimpse of what North Carolina can be when everything comes together, as the Tar Heels whipped up on a much-improved Indiana team, 101-84, to advance to the East Region finals.
No. 1 North Carolina will advance to face ACC rival No. 6 Notre Dame on Sunday afternoon. The Tar Heels beat the Irish by 31 points two weeks ago in the ACC tournament, getting revenge on a loss UNC suffered in South Bend back in January.
It was that loss that really got us questioning these Heels. They blew a 15 point lead largely due to the fact that it was the Fighting Irish that were the tougher, more physical team. UNC gave up 13 second half offensive rebounds, a number that is truly unacceptable when you’re front line is as big and as deep as Carolina’s is. Their mental toughness — could we really trust UNC to win a big game? — was already a major concern, and thanks to Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson, we started questioning their physical toughness.
That’s not an ideal combination.
And that’s probably why that 78-47 win two weeks ago felt so good.
But that performance had nothing on the show that the Tar Heels put on on Friday night and into early Saturday morning.
It took less than five minutes for us to know that something special was about to happen, because that’s how long it took Paige to hit his first four threes. When you include the two assists that he had, UNC’s struggling superstar was responsible for UNC’s first 16 points of the night. He finished with 21 points and six assists, but he more than set the tone as the Tar Heels would go on to bury 10 of their first 12 triples.
Indiana, frankly, didn’t stand a chance.
The Hoosiers, who had been a totally different team on the defensive end of the floor from the one that was lit up by Duke back in December, gave up 1.444 points-per-possession in the first half, and I don’t even think they played that poorly on that end of the floor. What can you do when a team hits 7-for-8 from three? What can you do when two of those threes were missed shots that took wicked bounces and went in?
Because that was the way to beat the Heels, particularly for a team like Indiana, who plays small-ball. They had to pack in their defense because Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks were going to eat their big men alive. They had to dare the Tar Heels to beat them from beyond the arc because UNC has not proven to be able to consistently shoot the ball from three.
When Carolina shoots like this, there is not a team in college basketball that will beat them.
And that is why this is Peak Carolina.