Heels Bounce Back

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – No. 5 North Carolina was intent on proving that Wednesday’s performance in its loss to Butler was an anomaly that won’t often reoccur in its 78-56 defensive dismantling of No. 22 UCLA on Thanksgiving night.

The Tar Heels (4-1) struggled to finish defensive possessions in their 74-66 loss to the Bulldogs in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis. They solved that issue in part on Thursday by not allowing the Bruins to consistently get started in their offensive sets.

UNC turned defense into offense as it scored 31 points off 23 turnovers roughly 28 hours after allowing 29 offensive rebounds. UCLA committed a turnover on 30.3 percent of its possessions.

The reason for UNC’s energized turnaround was simple enough, according to junior wing J.P. Tokoto.

“Honestly, it was the embarrassment from last night,” Tokoto said. “We uncharacteristically gave up 29 offensive rebounds. Credit to Butler, they kicked our butts and were much tougher than us, but that’s just not us.”

Tokoto joined fellow starters Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson on the bench to start the game as Roy Williams sent a message regarding his team’s play against Butler. That decision was a motivating factor for Tokoto, who described Wednesday’s performance as a “smack in the face.”

UCLA (4-2) jumped out to an 18-11 lead by attacking the glass and limiting miscues. The Tar Heels responded by increasing their defensive pressure, ratcheting up the tempo by creating turnovers and getting out in transition.

Turnovers fueled a 32-11 run to close the first half as UNC scored 19 points off 12 UCLA turnovers.

“Our pressure really got to them,” sophomore forward Isaiah Hicks said. “They just probably weren’t used to it. They had a lot of turnovers that led to us scoring, so I would say our pressure took them out of what they wanted to do.”

UCLA cut its deficit to 47-38 early in the second half, but UNC responded with a 15-0 run to put the game out of reach.

The Bruins entered the game ranked third nationally in assist-turnover ratio (1.68). That ranking will plummet after Thursday’s 7:23 ratio.

“I think they got frustrated a little bit tonight like we did last night turning the basketball over,” Williams said. “When you look down there [at the box score] and we had 31 points off turnovers to their six, that’s a huge, huge factor in the game.”

UNC’s 31 points off turnovers are not only a season high, but are also more than it scored in any game last season.

More importantly, the 33-hour span from tip off on Wednesday to the final buzzer on Thursday highlighted UNC’s flaws and showcased its strengths.

“It’s easy now to see the difference in how we played tonight versus how we played yesterday,” Paige said. “The way everyone was into it, playing unselfish, flying around on defense and being active, that’s a more fun way to play because everyone gets involved.

“We had 31 points off turnovers, so that really is an indicator of our activity level. I think that’s a more fun style to play, and when you see the results, as drastically different as they were, why wouldn’t you want to play that way? So I think that has to be our mindset.”

UNC will close out the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament against the winner of Florida-UAB on Friday at 8pm (AXS TV).

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