SOUTH BEND, Ind. There was an important moment late in the first half of North Carolina’s 73-62 victory against Notre Dame on Saturday – a moment that a box score couldn’t explain and one that even the most attentive spectator might have forgotten about not long after it happened.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams remembered it, though, and he spoke about it with admiration after his team extended its winning streak to a season-long five games.
“The last play before the half we were holding for the last shot,” Williams said, recalling the play. “We were going to run a man-to-man play, and they switched to zone. Marcus (Paige) called zone, everybody got in the right spots, (and) we ended up getting a layup. I think that was huge for us.”
At the end of a game North Carolina controlled throughout the final 30 minutes, the final play of the first half might have seemed inconsequential. James Michael McAdoo, the junior forward, received the pass from Paige, made the layup and UNC went into halftime leading by four points instead of two.
To Williams, that play provided more meaningful evidence of the Tar Heels’ continued improvement. At times earlier this season – and especially at the start of ACC play – the Tar Heels (16-7, 6-4) tended to become lost in the details.
During those periods of struggle, Paige might have recognized the zone defense but might not have changed the play in time. McAdoo might not have finished the play. During their five-game winning streak, though, the Tar Heels have been a sharper, more attentive team.
They’ve also become tougher, too, and apparently more hardened by the adversity they experienced. UNC trailed 19-10 with about 8 ½ minutes to play in the first half. From there, the Tar Heels mostly controlled the Fighting Irish (12-12, 3-8) and silenced a subdued crowd at the Joyce Center.
Could North Carolina have overcome such a sluggish start on the road a couple of weeks ago? Paige, the sophomore guard who finished with 16 points and six assists, gave it some thought.
“It’s hard to say,” he said. “But I know that’s one of the things we’ve gotten better at, is being able to not lose our composure.”
The list of North Carolina’s improvements during its five-game winning streak is a long one. On Saturday, the Tar Heels didn’t always execute like they did on that final play of the first half, but they played one of their finer defensive games.
The Tar Heels clogged Notre Dame’s passing and driving lanes, and forced turnovers – 17 in all – that led to transition opportunities. J.P. Tokoto, the sophomore forward, excelled in those situations. His one-handed dunk in the first half, through a couple of hapless Notre Dame players, elicited a soft cheer of hushed admiration.
Early in the second half, after the Tar Heels led 27-23 at halftime, Tokoto finished another breakaway with another dunk. That one came after one of his four steals, and the finish gave UNC a 35-25 lead – its first double-digit lead of the game.
“A big dunk from anybody on the team gets everybody going, try to get another stop and get another one,” said Tokoto, who finished with 13 points. “… Those kinds of plays gets the energy up. It keeps us going.”
At times in the second half, the Tar Heels seemed to force turnovers at will. Mike Brey, the Fighting Irish coach, called two timeouts in about three minutes in hopes of slowing momentum.
The first timeout came after that Tokoto dunk that gave North Carolina a 10-point lead. The second came after another turnover and then another dunk – this one from sophomore Brice Johnson, who gave the Tar Heels a 44-30 lead with 13 ½ minutes remaining.
Weeks ago, North Carolina lacked intensity. Defensively, it often failed to create the kind of transition chances it took advantage of Saturday.
“The biggest thing was probably just our sense of urgency on defense,” McAdoo said when asked what had changed.
McAdoo led the Tar Heels with 18 points and eight rebounds. He and Tokoto finished with four steals, and they were the most disruptive players in their team’s defensive performance.
North Carolina, which outscored Notre Dame 23-11 in points off turnovers, led by as many as 16 with about seven minutes to play, and the Fighting Irish never cut their deficit to fewer than eight the rest of the way. It was a decisive, convincing victory for the Tar Heels, who host No. 11 Duke on Wednesday night.
Not that Williams was thinking about that.
“We’re much more consistent now,” he said, speaking to his team’s improvement. “But we’ve got some big time games left. I don’t know who it is we play next, but we’ve got some big-time games.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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