North Carolina decided to give its seniors one last nail-biter at the Dean Smith Center.
Marcus Paige had a miserable offensive night but secured the game-winning block on Eric Atkins in the final seconds, as the No. 14 Tar Heels escaped with a 63-61 victory over Notre Dame on Monday night.
It was an ending that was indicative of UNC's overall performance.
Although Roy Williams' squad shot just 46.3 percent from the field and hit only 10-of-22 free throws, it did enough defensively to earn its 12th consecutive victory and third-straight by four points or less.
Still, as he said in the post-game press conference, via GoHeels.com, Williams wasn't thrilled about the lackluster performance:
I'm tired of wining games ugly.' It's better than losing games ugly. I thought that we'd have a tremendous sense of urgency today. We played so much harder in practice yesterday than we did in the game today. We learned those lessons early in the season but we've let them slip by us this year these last couple of games. You got to give Notre Dame credit. They were down 14 and came right out the start of the second half and did what they wanted to do and made shots and we were ugly."
James Michael-McAdoo led the way with 14 points and nine rebounds, while J.P. Tokoto added 11, as the Heels moved to 23-7 overall and 13-4 in the ACC.
North Carolina has won 12 straight ACC games for 1st time since 1986-87 season— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 4, 2014
For a while, Carolina looked like it was going to easily roll to a 12th consecutive victory. Starting James Manor, Denzel Robinson and Wade Moody for senior night, they never trailed in the first half, leading by as many as 15 before taking a 41-27 lead into the locker room.
But Mike Brey's halftime adjustments worked wonders, as Notre Dame came out in a zone and stifled the Heels' offense.
"We just didn't get the shots we wanted," said Paige, who finished with just seven points on eight shots. "They switched their defense up a couple times just to give us different looks. I think we were just kind of frustrated on the offensive end. We tried to go inside, didn't get a couple calls, didn't get any clean looks and then it just kind of spiraled from there."
On the other end, Eric Atkins and Pat Connaughton caught fire and the Garrick Sherman-less Irish stormed back into the game. Connaughton poured in 10 straight points, Atkins hit a pair of jumpers and suddenly Notre Dame was up by three just seven minutes into the half.
ESPN Stats & Info gave a look at the impressive run:
Notre Dame has been almost unstoppable in 2nd half vs UNC. The Irish's shot chart for their 22-5 run pic.twitter.com/0KzCZIGKqV— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 4, 2014
Atkins finished with a game-high 21 points, while Connaughton had 17 points and 13 rebounds, but they didn't receive enough help as North Carolina built its lead to five with 1:31 remaining and Paige made up for a couple of missed free throws with a game-winning swat.
Pat Connaughton, Notre Dame: B+
For the first three minutes of the second half, Pat Connaughton single-handedly brought the Irish back into the game.
The junior guard got to the hoop for a layup, penetrated for an off-balance three-point play, knocked down a contested three-pointer and scored on a little mid-range floater, culminating in a 10-1 run all by himself.
Pat Connaughton 17 points and 13 rebounds on a sprained ankle in Notre Dame's 2-pt loss to UNC. He'll probably throw a no-hitter next month.— Jen McCaffrey (@jcmccaffrey) March 4, 2014
Outside of that electric stretch, though, he was fairly nonexistent on the offensive end, looking out of control at times, finishing with 17 points and three turnovers.
J.P. Tokoto, North Carolina: A-
The ultra-athletic Tokoto enjoyed a nearly perfect first half, as he scored nine points on 4-of-4 shooting and pulled down five rebounds.
The sophomore became mostly invisible during the second half as Notre Dame's defensive pressure increased, but he knocked down a key jumper late that ultimately sealed the victory.
Despite the quiet second half, 11 points on five shots to go with six rebounds is an extremely valuable contribution, no matter when the production occurred.
Eric Atkins, Notre Dame: A-
There's not much more Atkins could have done.
Offensively, the dynamic point guard scored 21 points, knocking down a three or getting to the hoop whenever the Irish needed a basket. He also handed out six assists and committed only two turnovers despite handling the ball for most of the night.
Defensively, he face-guarded Paige for most of the night and was a major reason for the North Carolina star having one of his worst offensive games of the season.
Atkins struggled from the free-throw line (1-of-4) and committed a costly late turnover, but Notre Dame would have been lost without him.
Marcus Paige, North Carolina: C
After taking over down the stretch and pouring in 35 points in an overtime win against NC State, Paige has seriously struggled in his last two games.
He scored just nine points with one assist at Virginia Tech on Saturday, and he followed that up with a seven-point (2-of-8 from the field) performance on Monday night, which included a couple of missed free throws in the final seconds.
Paige managed to dish out six assists to just two turnovers, played much better in the final six minutes of the game and got the game-winning block, but he needs to be more effective for the full 40 minutes as the Heels progress further into March.
North Carolina nearly overlooked this one with Duke on the horizon, but the Heels will nevertheless be able to enter Cameron Indoor on Saturday with their win streak still intact.
The conference title is out of reach, but bragging rights during the country's biggest rivalry—as well as a higher seed in the Big Dance—will be on the line.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, turns its attention to Greensboro for the ACC tournament.