Stemming the Turnover Tide

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 13 North Carolina shut down its massive turnover leak over the final 10 minutes of play on Monday to pull away from Syracuse, 93-83, and win its six straight conference game.

The first half ended appropriately enough, as the Tar Heels botched an inbounds play under their own basket and watched Kaleb Joseph bolt down the court for a layup at the buzzer and a 40-35 lead.

Joseph’s score gave Syracuse 16 points off turnovers at the break, and that number eventually grew to 21 before the night’s end. UNC shot 48.1 percent in the first half, yet committed a turnover on 1/3 of its possessions. The Tar Heels committed as many turnovers as they made field goals (13).

“We couldn’t even get shots and a lot of those were careless and unforced,” junior guard Marcus Paige told reporters after the game. “It’s hard to beat a good team when you turn the ball over that much.”

The Tar Heels weren’t attacking the rim and were instead timidly passing the ball around the perimeter. That approach plays into the hands of Syracuse’s matchup zone defense, which relies on extension into the passing lanes to take advantage of the Orange’s length to get deflections.

UNC’s 13 first-half turnovers were more than it has had total in 11 games this season.

Roy Williams’s halftime speech focused primarily, if not entirely, on the turnovers against the zone.

“I told my guys we were either dead or stupid if you don’t listen to one thing: you can’t just throw the ball across the court,” Williams said. “They’re big, they go get it. You can’t just soft pass everything because they deflect it.”

The sloppiness wasn’t much better early in the second half. With 9:09 to play, junior wing J.P. Tokoto committed his sixth turnover – tying his season high – to increase UNC’s total turnover count to 19, matching its season high.

UNC trailed 60-58 at that point. And, with an apparent snap of Williams’s fingers, the miscues vanished. The Tar Heels scored 33 points on their next 21 possessions without a turnover, a stretch spanning 8:58 of game clock.

UNC’s final turnover – a season-high 20th – came with 11 seconds remaining and the game out of reach.

What changed for the Tar Heels was an emphasis on pounding the ball down low. Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson combined for 26 points on 9-of-11 shooting in the second half.

“Really, the biggest difference was getting the big guys the ball,” Paige said, “and the big guys working harder to get the ball. In the first half we could barely get Brice and Kennedy the ball where they could work in the post… That made the guards’ passing angles a lot easier. The big guys worked their butts off, and that’s what helped us.”

Meeks confirmed that he made a point to locate Syracuse center Rakeem Christmas in the middle of the zone and then establish position. That opened up the high post, which allowed UNC’s offense to find its rhythm.

“It was just listening to the coaches,” Johnson said of the late-game efficiency. “They said for one big guy to post up against Christmas and the other one go high. That’s what we did and we were able to get him in foul trouble. Then he started to back off on his defense and we were able to score on him.”

UNC’s 93 points and 55.4 percent shooting were the most allowed by Syracuse this season. For the game, the Tar Heels averaged 1.18 points per possession despite turning the ball over on 25 percent of their possessions.

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