Winning the Paint

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Lost in No. 19 North Carolina’s late game collapse in its first meeting with No. 3 Duke on Feb. 18 was a dominant offensive display in the paint.

At Cameron Indoor Stadium 17 days ago, the Tar Heels scored 62 points in the paint, which remain the most by an ACC team in conference play over the past four seasons. Those 62 points are also the most Duke has allowed in that same four-year span.

Offensively, everything was working as planned until the Tar Heels let a 10-point lead with 3:51 to play slip out of their hands.

Kennedy Meeks scored 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting. Brice Johnson nearly matched his frontcourt teammate with 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Isaiah Hicks added 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting, while Joel James turned in possibly the best performance of his career with solid defense and six points on 3-of-4 shooting.

Add in the backcourt’s ability to slice through Duke’s defense to get to the rim and the points in the paint piled up high.

Given that level of success, don’t expect the Tar Heels’ game plan to change much in Saturday night’s rematch.

“We really established that style of play [in the first game],” junior guard Marcus Paige said on Friday. “J.P. [Tokoto] was driving the ball well and Brice and Kennedy were scoring at will on the block, so we want that same formula offensively and then maybe just clean up a few things here and there and hopefully things will work out better for us.”

Duke forward Amile Jefferson started in 26 of the Blue Devils’ first 27 games, including the win over UNC, but head coach Mike Krzyzewski has switched to a small lineup over the last four games. Matt Jones, a 6-foot-5 wing, has started in place of Jefferson in each of Duke’s last three games.

“We want to go inside a lot,” Paige said. “Duke’s been playing four guards lately, so they’re going to want to try to make us play one big guy and matchup with their four and we’re going to try to make them play Amile Jefferson more and play bigs more to match up with our guys. Whichever team can impose that matchup is probably going to have the advantage.”

With Jahlil Okafor occupying the frontcourt responsibilities for the Blue Devils, the Tar Heels are hoping to exploit that matchup with extra bodies down low.

“Just attack the rim and go aggressively,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day, it’s two of us and just one of him. They have other guys that will play down there, but usually they go with a small lineup with Winslow at the four, so we’ve just got to exploit that because we are a bigger team when they do that.”

Okafor sprained his left ankle during the first half of the first meeting and was limited in his effectiveness on both ends, scoring 12 points of 6-of-11 shooting. The frontrunner for ACC Player of the Year is averaging 17.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game.

“He’s aggressive, but everybody has their gray areas that you have to point out,” Meeks said. “I’m sure he’s doing the same thing with us… He’s a great player. He’s definitely one of the elites in the country.”

The Tar Heels are hoping their two bigs are better than Duke’s one yet again in Saturday’s regular season finale.


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