PHILADELPHIA -- North Carolina's players and coach knew they were the last of the big dogs remaining.
Shortly before the top-seeded Tar Heels took the court for their Elite Eight game against Notre Dame, they were watching another No. 1 seed, Virginia, give up a double-digit second-half lead to 10th-seeded Syracuse.
"We were watching the game, the Syracuse game, we saw they were down, but we all agreed as a team to turn the TV off," sophomore Theo Pinson said. "We control our own destiny."
Virginia ended up losing to Syracuse, making it 3-for-3 in terms of top seeds that had lost over the prior 48 hours. North Carolina wasn't about to let next weekend's Final Four in Houston go off without at least one regional favorite.
After beating Notre Dame 88-74 in the NCAA East Regional finals on Sunday evening, North Carolina is headed to its 19th national semifinal, two more than any other Division I program.
"Never in my life have I wanted anything for somebody else than I wanted these guys to Houston," North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said afterwards. "I've never wanted anything for anyone else than to get this bunch to the Final Four."
The Tar Heels (32-6) advance to their first national semifinal since 2009. There, they will take on Syracuse, another Atlantic Coast Conference squad --one of four to make it to the Elite Eight, including Notre Dame.
The North Carolina frontcourt has been too deep and too skilled for every team the Tar Heels have come across during their tournament run, and they showed why again against a Fighting Irish squad that had won one of their two earlier meetings with North Carolina this season.
First it was senior big man Brice Johnson, who had a dominant first half en route to a team-high 25 points. He was one of five Tar Heels with 10 points or more.
To start the second half, junior Kennedy Meeks poured in eight straight points to help UNC move out to an 11-point advantage with 16 minutes left.
Then, after Notre Dame roared back with a dozen straight to regain the lead, it was a pair of reserves, Pinson and junior Isaiah Hicks, who helped North Carolina responded with a 12-0 run of its own. The back-breaker was an alley-oop from the 6-6, 205-pound Pinson to the 6-9, 235-pound Hicks with 9:19 left that re-established that 11-point lead.
"I thought the way they answered that run was championship-level," Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. "They've got a great vibe about them right now."
Notre Dame (24-12) got no closer than eight points the rest of the way.
The Tar Heels dominated the rebounding battle (32-15) and points in the paint (42-30), shooting 61.5 percent from the floor despite going 4 of 13 on 3-point attempts.
"They just have a lot of trampolining guys that could keep the ball alive," Brey said. "We just couldn't secure that first miss, and that hurt us."
Along with Johnson and Meeks (10 points), senior guard Marcus Paige (13), sophomore Joel Berry II (11) and sophomore Justin Jackson (11) all reached double figures.
Johnson's 12 rebounds gave him his 23rd double-double of the season, a North Carolina record, while his 399 rebounds this season tie him with Tyler Hansbrough for the most in a North Carolina season.
Senior guard Demetrius Jackson led Notre Dame with 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting. Junior wing V.J. Beachem added 18 for the Fighting Irish.
Jackson and Beachem both earned all-regional honors along with Indiana's Yogi Ferrell, plus Paige and Johnson, the region's Most Outstanding Player.
"To do it with this group, it's been a really special ride," Paige said. "It's made this a little bit sweeter, you know? It's been a tough four years in Chapel Hill."
North Carolina led 43-38 after an exciting first half that saw both teams shoot better than 58 percent from the floor and 60 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
Johnson had 15 points and eight boards over the opening 20 minutes, which included eight ties and six lead changes as both teams took turns burying shots.
The Fighting Irish were able to stay within striking distance of the Tar Heels despite starting center Zach Auguste picking up two early fouls and spending all but five minutes of the first half on the bench. That was largely thanks to Jackson and Beachem, who combined for 24 first-half points on 9-of-12 shooting.
NOTES: This was the 27th meeting in the programs' history, with North Carolina holding a 20-7 series edge over Notre Dame since the first contest in February 1958. The Fighting Irish had won three straight before the Tar Heels' victory in the ACC semifinals. ... Notre Dame's six NCAA Tournament victories over the past two years are the most in any two-year stretch in the program's history. The Fighting Irish were in the Elite Eight for the second year in a row and seventh time in program history. ... North Carolina reached the Elite Eight for the seventh time in 12 years under Roy Williams, though the Tar Heels hadn't been since 2012 before this year.