Heels Smothered Defensively

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 12 North Carolina scored on eight of its first 10 possessions to take a six-point lead over No. 3 Virginia on Monday night. The Tar Heels’ offensive efficiency plummeted shortly thereafter.

UNC’s first six field goals were assisted by six different Tar Heels, and its seventh make was by Joel James after corralling a loose ball under the basket. Five of those field goals were from inside the paint, while the other two were on jump shots by Marcus Paige.

With 12:41 to play in the first half, Virginia head coach Tony Bennett was furious and called a timeout to make corrections.

“A couple of times we trapped the post and our rotations were slow and our guys were losing vision and trying to chase a screen,” Bennett told reporters after his team’s 75-64 win, “and then the ball went in the post and we’re supposed to be in position and our trap was soft a couple of times.“

Bennett’s message during that timeout: pin your ears back and go. Be aggressive and be quick. The Cavaliers wouldn’t need any further reminders.

UNC managed just 16 scores on its next 45 possessions (35.5 percent), while turning the ball over 11 times (24.4 percent) during that stretch.

That’s how Virginia turned a 33-32 halftime deficit into 66-48 lead with under four minutes to play.

The Cavaliers’ defensive game plan was to play the lane and make UNC play over the top. When the ball into the post, the sharper double teams proved daunting.

Junior forward Brice Johnson explained the strategy against post doubles after the game – the uncovered big goes to the rim while the defended player makes a quick move or an escape dribble – but that execution faltered against the Cavaliers’ unrelenting approach.

“Sometimes it was one-on-one, sometimes it was a double, so they always kept you guessing, which is also a difficult part of the game when you never know when the double team is coming,” sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks said. “You’ve just got to be prepared for it. Six turnovers are unacceptable on my part. It’s pretty hard to swallow that pill because I knew those were passes I could have made.”

With turnovers mounting in the post, Virginia guards Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes limited Paige’s touches after his initial looks. The preseason ACC Player of the Year was held scoreless over a 32-minute, 51-second stretch before scoring 10 points in the final 2:23.

“They help each other out on defense,” Paige said. “They understand that I’m one of the focal points, so if I come off a screen, they’re going to have two or three guys there ready to help and get back to their man.

“We’ve just got to do a better job of executing our stuff. A lot of times we have a tendency not to start screening and trying to get me some touches – not saying that the offense revolves around me – but it’s important for me to have the ball in certain stretches to make plays for myself and my teammates. Sometimes we don’t do that until we look up at the scoreboard and we’re down double digits.”

UNC head coach Roy Williams agreed, saying, “We don’t do a very good job of helping him at times by getting better spacing or getting somebody to score inside or setting screens for him.”

The Tar Heels shot 38.3 percent and committed 11 turnovers over its final 54 possessions.

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