The North Carolina Tar Heels used a strong effort from senior Brice Johnson to defeat the No. 6 Notre Dame Fighting Irish 88-74 and become the only No. 1 seed to reach the 2016 Final Four on Sunday in Philadelphia.
Johnson, a 6'9" power forward, led five Tar Heels in double figures and finished the game with 25 points and 12 rebounds. Senior point guard Marcus Paige had 13 points.
The balanced Tar Heels wore down the Irish, who dealt with some first-half foul trouble. After weathering a few Notre Dame spurts in the second stanza, UNC finished the game on a 37-22 run for the victory.
It was an entertaining first half that featured some sharp shooting from three-point land, while neither team led by more than six points.
The teams shot the ball better in the first half than anyone else since 2012, led by UNC's 64.0 percent effort, per ESPN Stats & Info:
UNC and ND shot a combined 61.2% in the 1st half, the 2nd-highest combined 1st-half field goal percentage in the last 5 NCAA Tournaments.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 28, 2016
Notre Dame stayed in the game despite getting just five minutes in the first half from star power forward Zach Auguste, who had two points early and was plagued by foul trouble. Demetrius Jackson stepped up to score 13 points, but was outdone by his counterpart, Johnson.
The Tar Heels star scored 15 points in the first 20 minutes, and was the main reason UNC led 43-38 at halftime. He also showed he can play defense with this huge block toward the end of the first half, via NCAA March Madness:
Former Virginia Tech Hokies head coach and current ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg liked what he saw from the big man:
Brice Johnson shoots the right shoulder turnaround as good as any I've seen. Really hard shot.— Seth Greenberg (@SethOnHoops) March 28, 2016
Notre Dame fans were pleased with V.J. Beachem, who dropped in 11 points in the first half, including a big-time baseline dunk.
However, it was the Heels who were providing the highlights to start the second half, as they scored six of the first eight points to open up a 49-40 lead.
ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale thought it was a sign of trouble for the Irish:
After Carolina scored the next basket to extend the lead to 51-40, it appeared Vitale was correct. However, Notre Dame used an 8-0 run to cut the lead to three on an alley-oop layup and an and-1 from Auguste.
It soon would become a sign of trouble for the Tar Heels, as Johnson was called for a foul on North Carolina's next possession and then slapped with a technical after he tossed the ball behind him. Notre Dame hit both free throws and a jumper for a 12-0 run and 52-51 lead with 13:04 remaining in the game.
Jon Solomon of CBS Sports didn't like what he saw from the Tar Heels during that stretch:
Here comes Bad Carolina. Brice Johnson gets T'd up over frustration on foul call. Bad body language for Tar Heels right now.— Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonCBS) March 28, 2016
ESPN's Andy Katz summarized what the Irish needed to do from that point on:
Critical stretch for Notre Dame here to keep attacking and limiting UNC to one shot. https://t.co/0ntw5iqzab— Andy Katz (@ESPNAndyKatz) March 28, 2016
Unfortunately for the Irish, they seemed to use all of their energy on the run as the Heels answered with 12 in a row of their own to jump ahead 63-52 with 9:21 remaining. UNC capped off the run with this alley-oop from Theo Pinson to Isaiah Hicks.
It was enough to hold off Notre Dame the rest of the way. After the play, ESPN's Stephen A. Smith tweeted he thinks it will take a monumental effort to take down the Heels:
I'm trying to figure out how anyone's going to beat UNC now. The Heels are so big. May take an explosion from Buddy Hield to stop them— Stephen A Smith (@stephenasmith) March 28, 2016
The Irish gave a good one, but it wasn't enough as their season ended in the Elite Eight for the second straight season. Jackson finished with a game-high 26 points, while Beachem had 18. The Heels held Auguste to just five points and three rebounds.
Notre Dame shot 55.1 percent from the field and hit 11 of 14 three throws but lost the rebounding edge, 32-15. The Tar Heels connected on an efficient 61.5 percent of their shots and had 17 assists compared to just nine for Notre Dame.
North Carolina advanced to the Final Four for the first time since it won the national championship in 2009. It will face face ACC foe Syracuse. The Heels swept the Orange in two games during the regular season, but at this point, any team still playing has a chance to win.
Sam Blum of the Daily Orange agreed:
Syracuse will play North Carolina next Saturday in the Final Four. At this point, I think anything is possible.— Sam Blum (@SamBlum3) March 28, 2016
Syracuse has defied the odds with double-digit comebacks its past two games, including fighting back from being down 16 in the second half on Sunday against the No. 1-seeded Virginia Cavaliers. Saturday's contest should be a good matchup between the zone defense of Syracuse and the balanced offense of North Carolina.
The Orange have been playing well, but as Smith said, with all the things the Tar Heels are doing right now, it is going to require a level of perfection Syracuse probably has not reached this season to win the game.
Fox Sports got creative after the game, using one of North Carolina's most famous former athletes to share the accomplishment with the college basketball world:
UNC head coach Roy Williams, in search of his third title at the school, was proud of his team following the game, per ESPN.com: "They made a great run and we made a great run right back at them," he said. "These guys were phenomenal. It's a fine feeling right now."
Johnson set a program record with his 23rd double-double of the season, and said it was worth the wait to reach the Final Four in his last season, according to ESPN.com.
"It means a lot," Johnson said of the Final Four. "It took us four years to do this, but we're finally there."
Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey thought his team played well enough to earn the victory and praised North Carolina for not allowing that to happen, per ESPN.com.
I thought we put ourselves in position. You have to give credit to North Carolina. We took that one-point lead and they answered it like men. They're really playing well. I think they're playing the best of anyone left. I thought the way they answered that run was championship level.
The Tar Heels have some time to celebrate before next weekend's Final Four game, and judging by this video from Go Heels TV, Joel Berry is doing just that:
We don't know what to call this, but you need to see it. Thanks, Joel! pic.twitter.com/y9VcuQob5G— GoHeelsTV (@GoHeelsTV) March 28, 2016
Williams, who actually cut his finger and bit his tongue after a mishap on the ladder during the net-cutting ceremony, seems extremely happy for his players, according to ESPN.com: "Never in my life have I wanted something for someone else as I wanted to get these guys to Houston."