'A championship' performance sends Carolina to the Final Four

Philadelphia -- Mike Brey had the game where he wanted it. His Notre Dame team had just seized a second-half lead on favored North Carolina, and the Tar Heels' frustration was showing. Brice Johnson had been called for an over-the-back foul and compounded that by slamming the ball to the floor and then flipping it off the backboard. That's called begging for a technical. One ensued.

The resulting four-point play put the Irish ahead 52-51 with 13:16 remaining, and anyone who has watched an NCAA tournament -- especially anyone who watched Virginia wilt against Syracuse earlier in the day, or Kansas stumble against Villanova on Saturday -- knows that late-game pressure can turn favorites to jelly. "We were down to game situations," Brey said. "I thought, 'This is going down to the wire.' "

Final score: North Carolina 88, Notre Dame 74.

The Heels' response to falling behind was the equivalent of a jumbo jet taking flight. From 13:16 until a last dribble-out-the-clock trip, they scored on 19 of 20 possessions. We pause here to think about that: In a regional final, with an immense weight on this team to reach Carolina's first Final Four since 2009, these Heels didn't just play as well as they could -- they played about as well as any Carolina team ever has.

Brey: "I kept thinking, 'They've got to miss one. Can Brice Johnson just miss one?' "

Actually, the Heels did miss a few times -- five times from the field, four times from the line -- over the final 13 minutes, but every time except one they snatched the rebound and scored. As we know, Carolina is massive; in this second half it played to its size. The Heels finished with nearly as many offensive rebounds (13) as Notre Dame had rebounds (15), not that either side did all that much missing. Carolina made 60.1 percent of its shots and scored 23 second-chance points to Notre Dame's six.

Think also about this: The Irish made 55.1 percent of their shots and only seven turnovers -- and lost by 14 points. "Did they punch us back," Brey said, the coach in him marveling at what he'd just seen.

Then: "I loved where we were at the half (five points down). We were in it ... We burned in that first half."

By "burn," Brey meant his team four-cornered the program that invented the Four Corners, albeit in a 21st-Century way. The Irish spread the court and made the bigger Heels chase and switch, and the upshot was weirdly brilliant offensive half. Even with Notre Dame using more than 25 seconds on nearly every possession, the halftime score was 43-38. (The halftime score of the Irish's semifinal against Wisconsin on Friday had been 23-19.)

You could tell from Brey's demeanor he liked what he was seeing. He's among the best bench coaches in the business, and he was working the heck out of this one. (Even with a torn calf muscle, suffered in the second second half against Wisconsin.) On cue, Carolina opened the second half by pounding the ball inside and seizing an 11-point lead. It disappeared in the span of 108 seconds. Right there you thought the same thing Brey did: This one's coming down to the last shot.

And then: Domination. Carolina scored 37 points over the final 13 minutes. Brey said he'd never seen one of his teams -- and he has been around, having worked at Delaware and under Mike Krzyzewski as a Duke assistant -- have such a thing happen to it. Not many teams have.

A year ago, a similar Notre Dame took then-unbeaten Kentucky to the wire in the Elite Eight. Carolina didn't allow itself to be taken to the wire. Carolina got going and left a very smart and resourceful opponent in its dust. When this Big Dance began, consensus held that there was no overwhelming favorite: Kansas was considered the closest thing, then Michigan State. Those two are gone, but one remaining team looks overwhelming.

"That was championship-level stuff," Mike Brey said, having just been overwhelmed.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.