By R.L. Bynum
On the way back to the team hotel in Greensboro on Wednesday night, North Carolina probably pulled down a couple of more offensive rebounds.
It was that kind of night for the No. 6-seed Tar Heels, who flourished inside even without Garrison Brooks, rolling to 101–59 second-round ACC Tournament victory over No. 11 Notre Dame at the Greensboro Coliseum.
It was the second-largest margin of victory in tournament history (Virginia beat Duke by 43 in 1983) to earn UNC a quarterfinal matchup at 8:30 p.m. Thursday against No. 3 seed Virginia Tech (15–5) in their first meeting of the season. It was Carolina’s highest-scoring ACC Tournament game since scoring 102 against Maryland in 1993.
Carolina (17–9) couldn’t seem to put away Notre Dame (11–15) until Walker Kessler blocked a Juwan Durham attempt to cut the Irish’s lead to 10 points with 14:52 left. That ignited an incredible 37–2 run, including 22 consecutive points, before UNC cleared the bench leading by 50 with 3:52 left.
Carolina big men Armando Bacot (20 points and 13 rebounds), Kessler (16 and 12) and Day’Ron Sharpe (14 and 10) all had double-doubles, combining for 50 points and 35 rebounds compared to 59 points and 31 rebounds for the entire Notre Dame team. The 25 offensive rebounds were tied for the fourth-most in ACC Tournament history.
“I challenged those other three guys yesterday to be focused and ready to play regardless of how many minutes we were going to give them,” said Coach Roy Williams, who found out earlier in the day that Brooks wouldn’t play.
Kessler’s seven blocks broke Tim Duncan’s freshman ACC Tournament record and Eric Montross’ school record for an ACC Tournament game.
“You know, I guess it really hasn’t settled in that much because I’ve always just blocked shots in high school,” Kessler said. “I’m sure later tonight when I’m laying in bed it’ll settle in, I’m sure.”
Bacot has seen it all in practice all season from Kessler and knows improvements will keep on coming.
“Kess, he’s special right now and he’s going to be even more special down the line,” Bacot said. “Obviously, he probably has the highest upside out of all the bigs.”
Who needs post-entry passes when your pivot men are pulling down nearly every miss and scoring on follow shots? UNC rebounded 18 of its 26 misses in the first half and 25 of 41 for the game and scored 27 second-chance points.
“We had competitions to go out there and see who could get the most offensive boards,” Bacot said. “It’s just fun just being able to rebound shots and get second chances for us, just pulling stuff like that.”
On a night when Kerwin Walton struggled to find his shooting range (1 of 5 from the floor for three points), Caleb Love (15 points and three 3-pointers) and RJ Davis found theirs (14 and two) to easily oust the Irish. Davis was a +39 for the game.
“We knew we had to go out there and just compete, and obviously just the way they came back yesterday was kind of scary,” Bacot said of Notre Dame’s rally to beat Wake Forest. “And not having Garrison, we just knew we could not let up on them, we couldn’t get [Nate] Laszewski get going or [Prentiss] Hubb. And I thought we got out there on defense and got all the right rotations. We did a good job communicating without our defensive leader Garrison, so I thought overall it was a good job by all of us and we stepped up.”
Laszewski and Hubb both were limited to 13 points.
Carolina played without Brooks for only the second time in 132 games. The previous game he missed was at Louisville in 2020. He is still nursing a left ankle that he turned early in Saturday’s win over Duke and hasn’t practiced since then.
“I feel like everybody has to stay locked in, stay focused, and get ready for the next game, keep the same energy,” Sharpe said. “We can’t be inconsistent, win one big game and lose the next game. We’ve got to keep it going.”
A Davis 3-pointer capped a 14–4 run to put UNC ahead 31–18 with 7:52 left in the first half. The Heels piled up the layups after that to take a 50–38 halftime lead.
Until this season, there never had been an ACC Tournament game that matched teams that didn’t play during the regular season. That was going to be the case with the now canceled Duke-Florida State game but will happen for UNC-Virginia Tech.
The Tar Heels beat the Hokies in the first round of the last season’s shortened ACC Tournament. Tech hasn’t played since blowing out Wake Forest 84–46 on Feb. 27 and have only played twice since Feb. 6.
“They’re a little bit of a mystery,” Williams said of the Hokies. “I have seen them play some but not nearly as much as I have the other teams. They’ll be even more rested than we are, and we understand that. I saw their game against Virginia and they were off the charts good in that game.”
No. 6 UNC 101, No. 11 Notre Dame 59
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