WASHINGTON – No. 1 seed North Carolina strung together enough consecutive stops to spark a pair of double-digit runs to pull away from No. 8 seed Pittsburgh in ACC Tournament quarterfinal action on Thursday.
Roy Williams was not happy with his team’s performance through the opening 16 minutes of play at the Verizon Center. Pittsburgh was leading 35-29 and converting 56.5 percent of its field goal attempts. The Tar Heels were also shooting at a high clip, but as often is the case, their lack of defensive intensity was not able to overcome their offensive efficiency against a quality opponent.
That changed as UNC emerged from the final media timeout before halftime. The Tar Heels ramped up their energy and got stops on the Panthers’ final six possessions, turning several of those opportunities into transition scores to close the half on a 10-0 run to take a 39-35 lead.
“I think the last four or five minutes of the first half we got active defensively,” Williams told reporters after his team’s 88-71 win. “We were able to score. Up until that first five or six minutes, I was not pleased with the way we played in the first half. I thought that was big for us.”
Brice Johnson’s layup to open the second half capped a 12-0 UNC run. The Panthers kept coming, however, and eventually pulled within 57-55 with 10:48 to play. The Tar Heels locked down again, pairing four consecutive defensive stops with scores on the other end – highlighted by freshman Kenny Williams’s first career 3-pointer – to fuel an 11-0 run to effectively put the game out of reach.
“Defense is what got us into the offensive runs,” sophomore wing Justin Jackson said. “A lot of it was that we got stops and were able to get out into transition. When we can do that, that’s when we’re at our best.”
UNC was at its best for the second time in as many games against Pittsburgh this season. After shooting 59.3 percent in their 85-64 win over the Panthers on Valentine’s Day, the Tar Heels shot 58.9 percent on Thursday while averaging 1.3 points per possession.
It marked the ninth time this season that UNC has shot 50 percent or better in both halves and only the second time it has shot 50 percent in the first half and 60 percent in the second half. Both games were against Pittsburgh, which prompted various questions postgame about why the Tar Heels excel against the Panthers’ defensive approach.
“They don’t have a lot of size,” senior guard Marcus Paige said. “Their forwards are very good on offense and can shoot midrange, but they don’t have great size down low, so our bigs are able to get the ball close to the basket. They also don’t deny very much, so we can run our offense kind of unimpeded. Once we get into the flow, that’s what helps out a lot. Basketball is a rhythm game.”
The Tar Heels’ defensive stops fueled their transition game, which in turn served as an energy boost on the defensive end, jumpstarting a vicious cycle of efficiency that few opponents can withstand.
“Scoring in the halfcourt is one thing, but when you’re running them, and you keep doing it back to back to back, it takes a lot out of them,” sophomore wing Theo Pinson said. “They get tired. And, of course, they played yesterday, so we got into their legs a little bit by the way we ran. Once we force turnovers to get out into the break, it helps out a lot.”
UNC’s 17-point victory, which concluded with a flurry of offense, began with that defensive stand to close the first half.
“We feel like we've gotten better defensively as the year goes along,” Williams said. “The intensity that we had there in that stretch was really important. There's no question about that. I'd like to see that for 40 minutes, but that's pretty hard. I do think that basically got us back in the basketball game.”
UNC will play No. 4 seed Notre Dame at 7 p.m. on Friday in ACC Tournament semifinal action.