Score one for the little guys.
Notre Dame (29-5) struck early and often from beyond the 3-point arc Saturday night to fuel a 90-82 victory and their first conference tournament championship in 20 tries in the Big East (18) and ACC (2).
The mismatch of styles was best evidenced at the power forward position. Notre Dame center Zach Auguste was outnumbered inside against UNC's 6-foot-9 post players, Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson, who combined for 18 first-half points and 28 for the night. Johnson, with 10 points by halftime and 20 in all, was often the first option inside as he scored over smaller defenders with jump hooks, while Meeks and 6-8 reserve Isaiah Hicks did most of their damage pounding the offensive boards, where 13 offensive rebounds resulted in 11 second-chance points.
Their work allowed the Tar Heels (24-11) to pile up a whopping 46-28 advantage on points in the paint. Consider that when the teams met during the regular season, a 71-70 Irish victory in Chapel Hill, UNC had only 30.
But the Tar Heels, who trailed 39-34 by intermission, had trouble keeping tabs on Notre Dame's perimeter shooters, primarily Pat Connaughton, nominally the power forward in Notre Dame's starting lineup but more of a wing player at 6-5.
“He's not a '4' man,” UNC's Johnson insisted. “He's a '2' or a '3.' He just weighs as much as a '4' man (218 pounds). He's real tough for a team like us to cover.”
“I'm closer to the ground than a lot of these guys I cover, so have to use that to my advantage and try to get them as far away from the basket as I can,” Connaugton said of his strategy against bigger defenders such as Johnson, Hicks, 6-8 Justin Jackson or 6-6 J.P. Tokoto, who alternated on him. “Make them as uncomfortable as I can.”
Connaughton took up where he left off in the teams' regular-season meeting, when he scored 16 points buoyed by 4-of-7 3-point shooting. He made his first four shots in the championship game – including two 3-pointers – in the game's first 10 minutes and would finish with 20 points, going 4-of-5 from 3-point range and 7-of-9 overall.
“He really did hit some big shots for them,” Johnson said.
Notre Dame hit 10 of 20 3-pointers as a team, spacing the Tar Heels out defensively and rotating the ball for open shots.
“They didn't do anything different (from the regular-season meeting),” Tokoto said. “They just made it a tough matchup problem both offensively and defensively. When a guard would drive, they would kick it out (to 3-point shooters).”
That was the plan, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “Demetrius (Jackson) and Jerian (Grant) were able to get into the lane when they needed to, and it put a lot of pressure (on UNC). I love how fearless we are when we step up and take big-time shots. We've done that all year, though. We really have.”
“They were really, really hard for us to guard their dribble penetration,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “As I said the first time we played them, it's a tough matchup for us. We tried to go small the last part of the game to see if we could do a better job of guarding them, but they made some really good plays.”
Except for one brief stretch in the second half, Brey fought the impulse to play his two big men, the 6-10 Auguste and 6-7 Bonzie Colson, together.
“Your natural instinct is to go big, and we tried it a little bit,” Brey said. “But what it does do is it changes us offensively. Yeah, we played great 'D,' but part of that lightning strike and part of them having trouble playing against us was we were in such a rhythm offensively that that breaks your spirit a little bit.” That rhythm saw Notre Dame outscore UNC 26-3 over a seven-minute span late in the game and take an 80-66 lead with just under three minutes remaining.
UNC simply couldn't keep up from long distance. One day after shooting lights-out from the 3-point arc against Virginia, when the Tar Heels went 7-for-14, UNC was 1-of-8 for the first half against Notre Dame and 7-of-24 for the night. Jackson, who was 4-of-5 against the Cavaliers, went 0-for-7 from beyond the arc against the Fighting Irish.