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Notre Dame-North Carolina an improbable ACC title matchup

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The ACC can brag about having two teams deserving of No. 1 seeds when the NCAA tournament bracket is revealed this Sunday. The Virginia Cavaliers and Duke Blue Devils, however, will not be playing for the league’s tournament title on Saturday.

That privilege belongs to the North Carolina Tar Heels, thanks to their 71-67 win over the Cavaliers, and Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who beat the Blue Devils 74-64 on Friday.

It’s not exactly the matchup many expected when the 14-team tournament began on Tuesday. Carolina was the fifth seed and beat two higher seeds -- No. 4 Louisville and No. 1 Virginia -- for the first time in its history.

Even though No. 3 seed Notre Dame won five of its last six to close out the regular season, no one forgot the 30-point beatdown Duke put on it in their last meeting on Feb. 7.

Now everyone would be wise to remember both the Irish and Tar Heels when NCAA tournament brackets start getting filled out. Both teams have gotten a confidence boost from the ACC tournament regardless of the title game outcome. And both seem to be peaking at the right time.

“Everyone was hungry and anxious for March to come,” Notre Dame forward Pat Connaughton said. “We’re a team that did some things Notre Dame hasn’t done in the regular season, but the postseason is what everyone remembers. Everyone remembers March Madness. Everyone remembers we haven’t gotten out of that first weekend in a while, but we said, 'Look we’re going to use this tournament to really springboard us into [the NCAAs].'”

Notre Dame hasn’t been past the first weekend in the NCAA tournament since 2003. Hasn’t even won a tournament game since 2011.

But the Irish have already taken a small step toward rewriting their postseason narrative. Simply advancing to the ACC title game was no small accomplishment considering they never made it to the Big East tournament final in all their years in the conference.

“One of the things I used to say all the time when we were in the Big East: ‘Let’s get to Saturday,’” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “We went to four straight semifinals before we left the league for the ACC, but we could never get to Saturday. Darn if we’re not playing for it [Saturday] night, and I’ve never been more confident of a group.”

Brey is so confident in his team that he’s not afraid to tap different players for different situations. Freshman forward Bonzie Colson, who barely played the first half of the season and logged just six minutes against Miami on Thursday, has become the team's best reserve off the bench.

Colson scored 14 of his team-high 17 points in the first half against Duke as the Irish took a 41-26 lead into halftime.

Carolina has all of a sudden gotten contributions it wasn’t getting earlier in the season on the perimeter. Joel Berry II, Nate Britt and Justin Jackson have steadily improved their 3-point shooting, so teams can no longer simply key on Marcus Paige.

Jackson proved that point against the Cavaliers, finishing with season highs of 22 points and four 3-pointers.

Carolina hasn’t quite had the same postseason struggles as Notre Dame, winning two national titles since the last time the Irish made the Sweet 16, but it’s been a virtual eternity to folks in Chapel Hill since the Tar Heels last advanced out of the NCAA tourney's first weekend. The past two seasons, they were sent packing after losing their second game of the tournament.

The Heels have had problems finishing off teams late in games this season, including a 71-70 home loss to Notre Dame in their only meeting this season. But those mistakes seem to be in UNC's past after holding off Louisville in the quarterfinals and withstanding a similar charge from the Cavaliers in the semifinals.

The Heels have won five of their past six, but Paige wasn’t ready to say they are now hot.

“We’re getting warmer,” he said. “You’re not going to get that out of me until [Saturday] if we win the game. But we’re getting warmer.”