Moments before the start of Friday night's second half, Indiana coach Tom Crean explained to CBS sideline reporter Dana Jacobson what his team had to do to overcome an 11-point deficit.
"We've just got to do a better job defensively," Crean said. "We're letting the ball in the post too easily. They're getting too deep position."
Maybe North Carolina heard those instructions too because the first possession of the second half played out as though the Tar Heels were trying to prove a point. Kennedy Meeks backed down Thomas Bryant on the low block, snatched a post-entry feed from Justin Jackson and laid the ball in with ease.
North Carolina walloped Indiana 101-86 in the Sweet 16 on Friday night because the Tar Heels essentially did whatever they wanted on offense. They had 52 points by halftime and 75 points eight minutes into the second half before hitting 100 on a Joel Berry layup in the final minute.
When North Carolina wanted to go inside, Meeks and Brice Johnson combined for 35 points on only 20 shots. When Indiana converged on the paint and left shooters free, Marcus Paige and three other Tar Heels guard combined for 11-for-20 shooting from behind the arc. On the off chance North Carolina missed a shot or two, the Tar Heels still collected 15 offensive rebounds despite their torrid shooting.
North Carolina's dominant offensive showing propels the top-seeded Tar Heels to within one win of their 19th all-time Final Four and their fifth since 2000. Standing in North Carolina's way will be a Notre Dame team the Tar Heels dismantled by 31 points earlier this month in the ACC semifinals, though the Irish did win the lone regular season clash between the two teams.
It's easier to envision the rubber match resembling the second meeting than the first one because North Carolina has been a different team since the postseason began. Not only are the Tar Heels gashing opponents in transition and on the offensive glass as has been their trademark all season, now they're also defending with urgency and knocking down open outside shots.
If this trend continues, North Carolina may very well emerge as the dominant team this college basketball season has long appeared to be lacking. In three ACC tournament games and three NCAA tournament games, only fellow No. 1 seed Virginia has come within fewer than 16 points of the Tar Heels.
Don't hand North Carolina the national championship trophy just yet though because some of the other pre-tournament favorites have performed nearly as well. No. 1 overall seed Kansas has won all three of its games by double figures, the Jayhawks' Elite Eight opponent Villanova has throttled three opponents by an average of 24 points and title contenders Oregon, Virginia and Oklahoma all have enjoyed impressive moments too.
With North Carolina clinching its spot in the Elite Eight, it means that all four No. 1 seeds have reached the regional finals for the first time since 2009. Only two of the No. 1 seeds made the Final Four that year, but all four got there for the only time in NCAA tournament history the previous season.
Indiana appeared to have a chance to be the first to topple a No. 1 seed after its impressive Sweet 16 upset of fourth-seeded Kentucky. The Hoosiers had the perimeter firepower to go bucket for bucket with the Tar Heels and had shown improvement on defense over the course of the season.
While Indiana's defensive strides weren't a mirage, the Hoosiers were still no match for a North Carolina team playing at peak efficiency. Once Paige hit four early 3-pointers and Indiana had to alter its defensive strategy, it was clear this year's most anticipated Sweet 16 game would likely go the Tar Heels' way.
When Crean spoke with reporters after the game was over, he was more awed by North Carolina than angry with how his own team performed.
"North Carolina played outstanding," he said. "If they play like that, even remotely close to that, then they're going to be very, very hard to beat."
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