After a slow start to the conference season, North Carolina turned it around in a major way, winning 11 straight to clinch a first-round bye in the ACC tournament.
The No. 14 Tar Heels will look to continue that run Monday night when they host Notre Dame in the team's final home game of the season.
During their current streak, the Tar Heels (22-7, 12-4) have won in a variety of ways, from high-scoring shootouts to overtime thrillers. On Saturday at Virginia Tech, the team won a game coach Roy Williams described as "workman-like."
North Carolina shot just 50.0 percent from the free throw line, but Leslie McDonald sank two in the final seconds to help give the team a 60-56 victory. The win ensured the Heels a top-four finish in the regular season ACC standings and a place in the quarterfinals when the league's tournament begins next week in Greensboro, N.C.
"I don't know that I care that much about getting a bye," Williams said. "I care more about that meaning that you've had a pretty good run. I like winning games."
The 60 points were the fewest the Tar Heels have posted in a victory since a 54-51 win over Virginia on Feb. 25, 2012.
Among the keys for the Tar Heels' success has been the all-around play of forward J.P. Tokoto. Though he's fifth on the team in scoring at 9.4 points per game, the sophomore has contributed in other ways. Against the Hokies, Tokoto tied for the team lead in rebounds (seven) and assists (three), while also chipping in 12 points.
"He's got a great motor," teammate Marcus Paige said of Tokoto. "And he gets the bucket-getters every night. And at the same time, he's able to bring it on both ends."
While North Carolina's finale comes March 8 at Duke, this matchup will close out the regular season for the Fighting Irish (15-15, 6-11), who have lost three of four.
Notre Dame has been especially poor on the road this season, going 1-8 in ACC play. Among the team's issues in those contests has been a lack of crashing the boards, with opponents grabbing 33.3 rebounds per game.
That problem crept up again Saturday when the Irish fell 85-81 in overtime at home against Pittsburgh. Despite the five extra minutes, Notre Dame grabbed its fewest rebounds in a conference game this season and was outworked 38-22 on the glass.
"Our perimeter guys were our leading rebounders," said coach Mike Brey, referring to shooting guard Steve Vasturia's team-leading six rebounds. "Having said that, (we) had chances, but it was just a tough one."
A win versus North Carolina would end the Fighting Irish's debut ACC season on a high note. The Irish struggled when the teams met earlier this season, losing 73-62 at home on Feb. 8. This game will mark Notre Dame's first appearance in Chapel Hill since Feb. 23, 1993, a game won by the eventual-NCAA champion Tar Heels 85-56.
"We have to be ready for a big North Carolina game," Vasturia said. "It's the last game of the season. We have to take the positives from (the Pittsburgh game) and try to get better."
The Tar Heels lead the all-time series 17-4, including wins in the last four meetings.
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