WASHINGTON — With Marcus Paige leading the way, No. 7 North Carolina scored 24 consecutive points over a 9½-minute span bridging halftime and easily beat defending champion Notre Dame 78-47 Friday night for a spot in the ACC tournament final.
UNC (27-6) reached its record 34th ACC title game and fifth in the past six years. But the Tar Heels have gone 0-4 in finals in that span, including a loss to the Fighting Irish a year ago.
Whatever doubts there might have been about the Tar Heels as the NCAAs approach — Could they succeed without much from leading scorer Brice Johnson? Could Paige pull out of his shooting slump? Could the team display enough defensive toughness? — were wiped away during the game-changing run.
In sum, this was relentless and riveting. And it all happened with Johnson on the sideline, sitting with two fouls.
Paige had half of his 16 points during the big, rout-making run, and that might have been the best news of all for UNC. He was supposed to be one of the team's stars but has struggled much of the year, and was shooting less than 30 percent over his previous three games.
"We turned the corner defensively a little bit these past several weeks," Paige said. "We're definitely hitting our stride, but I still don't know what our peak is, which is probably a good thing."
Four others scored in double figures for North Carolina.
Bonzie Colson led Notre Dame with 15 points, while Zach Auguste had six points and 10 rebounds after getting 19 and 22 in a victory over Duke.
By halftime, the Heels held edges of 21-12 in total rebounds and 18-4 on points in the paint.
"We could make our travel plans at halftime," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "Let me put it that way."
The semifinal was tight and tense early, which made sense, given that Notre Dame (21-11) had won the teams' past three meetings. The Heels led only 23-22 with a little more than six minutes left until halftime. Then everything changed.
"Once they saw we weren't going to stop scoring," UNC's Theo Pinson said, "I felt like they (were) just like, 'okay, let's just keep playing and not get embarrassed.' "