Luck of the [Tar Heels]

Using some sort of combination of grit and luck, UNC men's basketball edged a depleted Notre Dame squad, 69-68, in a back-and-forth game on the road in South Bend, Ind.

It was the first ACC road win for the No. 20 Tar Heels (14-4, 3-2 ACC) after two losses at Florida State and Virginia, despite 20 offensive rebounds from the Fighting Irish (13-5, 3-2 ACC), the most allowed by UNC this season. The ending was as wild as the rest of the game, which featured 12 ties and 24 lead changes.

Joel Berry dribbled the ball to the floor as the shot clock ticked down to four seconds on what would be the Tar Heels’ final possession, trailing by one. Notre Dame’s defensive effort forced a tie-up and jump ball, but the arrow kept the ball with the Tar Heels, who could then set up one last play rather than watch the shot clock expire.

UNC attempted its staple inbound play as Berry lobbed a pass to Sterling Manley, who tipped the ball a couple of times before finally grabbing it. Manley threw up a prayer, which missed the rim completely, but Berry snagged the air ball and tossed up a shot. He was fouled, sending the nearly 90-percent free-throw shooter to the line for a couple of shots.

He sank both free throws before UNC fended off a shot from Notre Dame’s TJ Gibbs, who watched as his sky-high prayer clanked off the rim. He collected his own rebound, setting himself up for what looked like an easy shot.

The ball banked off the glass before spinning around the rim — pausing for just a second, as if to remember on which team it had bet, choosing the Tar Heels as victors as it fell off the iron. 

The Irish stared in disbelief as the visitors celebrated. Somehow, UNC snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. 

“I’m so befuddled right now," coach Roy Williams said after the game. "I was so discouraged. I’m dumbfounded we won the game.

“This is my 45th year of coaching. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that at the end. I’m at a loss for words and that’s something my wife will tell you has never happened in 67 years.” 

UNC gains a much-needed road win in the ACC, moving the Tar Heels up in the conference standings, where lucky wins count just as much as the great ones.  

“I thought they played harder than us; I thought they played smarter than us,” Williams said. ”I feel the luckiest maybe I’ve ever felt in my life at the end of a basketball game.”          

Berry scored 15 points and added three assists. Luke Maye notched another double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds, adding three assists himself. Theo Pinson put up another full stat line: 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Kenny Williams and Cam Johnson struggled, combining for just 12 points (4-17 FG), seven rebounds and five assists.

Joel Berry sank two free throws in the final moments of Saturday's game against Notre Dame to give the Tar Heels the lead for good. Berry finished with 15 points, three assists and two rebounds.   

Joel Berry sank two free throws in the final moments of Saturday's game against Notre Dame to give the Tar Heels the lead for good. Berry finished with 15 points, three assists and two rebounds.   

But in the end, it came down to a lucky bounce.

Should UNC hope to earn a one- or two-seed in the NCAA Tournament, it will all but certainly need to pick up a few more road wins throughout ACC play, none of which will be easy. After playing three of the last four away from Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels will play three of their next four games in the Smith Center, the exception being a road trip to Blacksburg, Va., to take on a Virginia Tech team sitting at 10-1 at home.

For now, Carolina sits at 3-2 in conference play. On Tuesday night, UNC will put its undefeated-in-Chapel-Hill-against-Clemson streak on the line as the No. 19 Tigers (15-2, 4-1 ACC) visit the Tar Heels. And in a matchup of top-25 teams, UNC might need more than luck in that one.

@brycelessgem

Photos by Smith Hardy