North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks finishes a dunk against Notre Dame. (Chris Szagola/AP)

North Carolina resembled nothing close to a team stricken by uncertainty, or a program with its head in the stocks under a hovering blade. Sunday night on the Wells Fargo Center court, there was only a colossus in full strut, a gang of veterans that could take a punch, a magnificent machine. The Tar Heels have operated under a cloud for years now. Through a bowed back and sheer physical might, they forced it to travel to Houston for the Final Four.

The future for North Carolina may remain unclear, but in its incandescent present it defeated sixth-seeded Notre Dame, 88-74, in the East Region final and, as the lone top seed headed to Texas, further established itself as the favorite to win the national championship. North Carolina withstood Notre Dame’s furious second-half rally and responded immediately with one of its own, allowing it to reach its first Final Four since the Tar Heels won the 2009 national title.

Carolina players, some of them for four years, have had to navigate uncomfortable circumstances they did nothing to create. The NCAA has investigated the school about a widespread academic scandal for years without reaching a conclusion or providing the program closure. It made their achievement Sunday night matter more.

“The stuff we always talk about off the court is well-documented,” senior point guard Marcus Paige said. “We don’t need to talk about that today. But it’s made this a little bit sweeter. It’s been a tough four years in Chapel Hill.”

“I’ve never wanted anything in my life for someone else as much as I wanted to get this bunch to the Final Four,” Coach Roy Williams said. “I’m corny. I’m old-fashioned — anything you want to say. I wanted it so much for them.”

The Tar Heels thumped the Irish in the style that has made them favorites, using their size to lean on them until they broke. North Carolina outrebounded Notre Dame 32-15 and outscored them in the paint 42-30. Senior Brice Johnson led the Tar Heels with 25 points and 12 rebounds, more than making up for the dumbfounding technical foul that keyed Notre Dame’s brief surge. Reserve Theo Pinson — who nicknamed himself “sparkplug” — provided a jolt off the bench, scoring just six points but making a procession of crucial plays.

North Carolina moved on to a national semifinal against 10th-seeded Syracuse, which North Carolina beat in both their meetings this season, by five and 11 points. Both schools dealt this season with fallout from scandals in different ways. Orange Coach Jim Boeheim served a nine-game suspension, while UNC continued to wait and wonder.

The NCAA’s years-long investigation into what role the basketball program played in a widespread academic scandal, which included sending Carolina a 55-page notice of allegations last May, has no determined end in sight. It added urgency to this year’s team. What happens if the hammer drops this summer? Would Williams consider retirement more appealing than coaching with ambiguity hanging over his head? The scandal could blow over. But Carolina knew this year’s stacked team could be its last, best chance to win the program’s sixth national title for quite some time.

“We’ve been talking about that for four years,” Johnson said. “Let it go. We’re going to the Final Four. Let’s talk about that.”

They’re going, in large part, because of Johnson, who was named the region’s most outstanding player. When he was 13, Johnson lost his mother, Renee, to cancer. As teammates snipped the final strands of the net Sunday night, Johnson strode to the first row behind the Tar Heels’ bench and wrapped his father, Herman Johnson, in a hug, falling on him as much as embracing him.

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“It means the world to him,” Herman Johnson said. “He said he’s playing for his mom, and I believe him. They were real close. He’s doing well. He’s making her proud.”

Notre Dame’s Mike Brey coached with a walking boot over his torn right calf, a reflection of his team’s toughness. The Irish lost to Carolina, 78-47, in the ACC tournament two weeks ago, and they ensured Sunday wouldn’t be another blowout despite a vast disadvantage in size and depth.

“I loved how we went after them and gave them everything we had,” Brey said. “They’re playing the best of anybody left.”

North Carolina seemed to assert full control early in the second half, suffocating the Irish as it expanded its lead to 51-40. The Irish refused to submit, and Carolina cracked. The Irish scored eight straight points, slicing the deficit to three, at which point Johnson committed a foul, his second personal, trying for an offensive rebound.

After the whistle, Johnson hurled the ball over his head, about 15 feet in the air. The referee slapped him with a technical foul — suddenly, Johnson had three fouls and headed to the bench. As Steve Vasturia drained both free throws off the technical, Paige gathered his teammates at half court and told them, “We’re fine. We’re fine.”

Bonzie Colson muscled in a layup in the post, which gave Notre Dame 12 straight points and a startling 52-51 lead. “That was their run,” UNC forward Justin Jackson said. “We had to respond.”

Reeling, with their best player sitting with foul trouble, the Tar Heels stiffened. Paige banked in a tough shot to give North Carolina back the lead. Joel Berry grabbed a long offensive rebound and hit a floater. Paige sank two free throws. Isaiah Hicks tipped in a wayward shot, and then he hammered home an alley-oop. Defensive stops, including a key steal by Pinson, added up. Almost as suddenly as it had squandered its lead, Carolina scored 12 straight points and stretched it back to 11.

“They really answered it like men,” Brey said.

They have been forced to grow up fast at Carolina. The tension and the stress gave way Sunday to relief and joy. As the Tar Heels snipped the nets, Williams climbed the ladder on creaky knees. He cut a sliver of the net and turned to the Carolina section. He raised both arms in the air, and he smiled as wide as he had in a long time.