Chapel Hill, NC (SportsNetwork.com) - North Carolina's final home game of the season was a lot closer than expected, but the 14th-ranked Tar Heels nevertheless escaped with a narrow 63-61 victory over upset-minded Notre Dame, stretching their winning streak to 12.
Marcus Paige uncharacteristically missed two free throws down the stretch, but UNC's star guard made up for the misses with a game-saving weakside block of a driving Eric Atkins just before the buzzer.
James Michael McAdoo finished with 14 points and nine rebounds for the Tar Heels (23-7, 13-4 ACC), who will close out their regular season on Saturday at rival Duke.
UNC's 12-game winning streak against ACC opponents is its longest since the 1986-87 season, when the Heels won all 14 of their league contests.
Atkins led Notre Dame (15-16, 6-12) with 21 points, while Pat Connaughton logged 17 points and 13 boards in the loss.
"I'm proud of our group," Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. "We put ourselves in position. ... I think there is something to build on there where we dug in a little better defensively."
Barring a few wins in the conference tournament, the Fighting Irish will finish their inaugural season in the ACC with a losing record for the first time since the 1998-99 campaign.
The Heels, perhaps looking forward to their anticipated matchup with Duke this weekend, watched a 14-point halftime lead evaporate as Connaughton opened the second half on a personal 10-1 run.
Brice Johnson ended a string of six straight UNC misses with a baseline hook shot, but Atkins scored the next seven points, evening things at 44-44 with a 3-pointer, before Steve Vasturia's triple the next time down gave the Irish their first lead at 47-46.
After Atkins fed Zach Auguste inside for a layup for a three-point Notre Dame lead, the Irish went the next seven minutes without scoring.
North Carolina, however, also hit a cold spell, and it was no more than a one- possession game until UNC rattled off seven consecutive points in crunch time.
J.P. Tokoto's mid-range jumper capped the surge and gave the hosts a 61-56 lead, though Connaughton kept the Irish close with a three-point play with 52.1 seconds remaining.
Johnson's offensive rebound extended UNC's next possession, and the Irish were forced to foul Paige, who came in as an 89.1 percent free throw shooter. Paige made the first and missed the second, and Atkins cut the deficit to 62-61 on a quick layup with 8.6 seconds to play.
Again Paige was quickly fouled, and again he went 1-of-2, allowing Atkins a chance to go coast-to-coast for a layup attempt that would have sent the game to overtime. McAdoo made the initial challenge, and Paige came over with textbook help defense that resulted in the deciding denial.
"You could kind of see in [Eric] Atkins' eyes that he was taking it and keeping it all the way to the basket," recalled Paige. "I just went all the way in and kind of made that choice that I was going to defend the rim instead of giving up the three, and I guess I guessed right and he tried to lay it up and I was there."
The Heels scored 12 second-chance points in the first half, five coming from Joel James on a three-point play and tip-in that gave UNC a 23-13 cushion with just under eight minutes left in the half.
The margin reached as high as 15, and the hosts brought a healthy 41-27 lead into the intermission.
UNC guard Leslie McDonald, in his last game at the Dean Dome, shot 2-of-8 from the field for five points ... Paige also shot 2-of-8 from the floor ... Both teams made under 46 percent from the foul line. Notre Dame missed seven free throws, five fewer than UNC ... The Irish have gone 7-12 since leading scorer Jerian Grant left the university because of an academic issue in late Dec. ... The Heels went 15-3 at the Smith Center this season ... This was Notre Dame's first visit to Chapel Hill since Feb. 23, 1993.