BLACKSBURG, Va. – After building its reputation as arguably the top offensive team in the country, No. 2 North Carolina has spent the last nine days proving it can also win when the shots are not falling.
The Tar Heels shot a season-low 37.8 percent in Sunday’s 75-70 win at Virginia Tech, four days after shooting 38.4 percent against Wake Forest. Last weekend, UNC shot 37.9 percent, then a season low, in its 67-55 win over N.C. State. Prior to this three-game stretch, UNC’s poorest shooting performance of the season was a 44.8 percent effort in its loss at Northern Iowa on Nov. 21.
The last time UNC shot under 40 percent in three consecutive games was the 2013-14 season. The difference between then and now is that the Tar Heels lost all three games two years ago.
Credit Roy Williams’s squad with finding ways to win when the offensive cruise control button failed to work. UNC relied on its defense to secure double-digit victories against two of its Tobacco Road rivals, holding both N.C. State and Wake Forest to below 41 percent shooting.
Not only did the Tar Heels hold Virginia Tech to 40 percent, they also dominated the boards with a 48-33 (20-6 OR) margin that resulted in an 18-11 edge in second-chance points.
Those efforts made up for UNC shooting 36.6 percent in the first half and 39.4 percent after intermission, including a woeful 13 percent from 3-point range (3-of-23).
“For the most part, I liked our shots,” Williams said. “But they didn’t go in, so I didn’t like the result.”
That point was reiterated in the postgame locker room.
“We’re getting decent looks,” Marcus Paige said. “Coach said during one of the timeouts that he wasn’t disappointed with any of the shots we took. We just weren’t making them. As long as we keep getting good shots, we’re too good offensively to continue this.”
Brice Johnson was the lone Tar Heel scoring efficiently, adding to his ACC Player of the Year resume with 19 points on 8-of-15 shooting and 17 rebounds. Joel Berry scored 13 points on 5-of-17 shooting (3-of-11), Justin Jackson was 4-of-11 and Theo Pinson missed four of his five attempts.
Paige’s struggles continued despite making two of his first three shots. The senior guard scored seven points on 2-of-10 shooting (0-of-5 from 3).
Paige is now shooting 14.3 percent (5-of-35, 1-of-22 from 3) over his last four games, although he stressed after the game that his mindset has not changed.
“I always feel like the next one is going in,” Paige said. “Hasn’t been the case, but I stayed aggressive and I was able to make some plays to Brice late, so I was happy with the way I played today. I was good defensively, got some steals and just played solid all of the way around.”
UNC entered Sunday’s game ranked 15th in the ACC in 3-point field goal percentage in league play, and that ranking is likely secured until at least Saturday as its long range shooting is now 22.7 percent through seven conference games. Williams noted three bad 3-point attempts, but otherwise seemed content with the shot selection.
“If you’re going to shoot the ball, you’ve got to be able to make some every now and then,” Williams said.
The 13th-year head coach is not one to overreact about singular performances. A string of poor offensive showings elicits a different response.
“We’re not very confident right now, but some way, somehow, you’ve got to get some confidence,” Williams said. “For us, I’ve said you’ve got to be able to win the game a lot of different ways. Today I think rebounding the basketball was the single factor that helped us win the game more than anything else.
“I was not concerned, but now I can be concerned if I want to because three games in a row is enough.”
Entering this season, UNC was 24-48 under Williams when shooting under 40 percent. This year’s squad is currently 3-0.