RALEIGH, N.C. – North Carolina lost six games along its path to a NCAA-record 15th No. 1 seed, each loss highlighted by a small margin of defeat and a focus on specific details that prevented victory.
The Tar Heels lost those six games by a total of 22 points. In the loss at Louisville, it was an inability to defend in the second half. At Notre Dame, it was an inability to rebound the defensive glass. Against Duke, it was slow help defense rotations and late offensive inefficiency.
“Little things like that can make a difference between winning and losing,” sophomore guard Joel Berry said at PNC Arena on Wednesday as the Tar Heels prepped for No. 16 seed Florida Gulf Coast.
Each loss seemed to have its own random tangible explanation to frustrate Roy Williams and send the fan base into anger mode.
“A lot of the games that we lost this year, they were all on the little things,” sophomore wing Justin Jackson said. “None of our losses were blowouts, and they just came down to little things that the other team did better than we did. Going back and looking at those films and seeing those little things that we didn’t do right, and we might want to blame it on the refs or all these other things, when really it was us not getting on the floor, getting offensive rebounds or whatever it is. I think we’ve really tried to focus on those things here lately.”
Over the last four weeks, UNC has largely avoided those pitfalls, winning seven of eight with the lone loss coming on the road against fellow No. 1 seed Virginia by five points.
“We’ve seen in the last couple of weeks an increased level of intensity, which makes up for 50/50 balls and things that don’t show up on the stat sheet,” senior guard Marcus Paige said. “With the level of intensity and work ethic going up, that takes care of that, but then there’s also the attention to detail on defense. Turning up our defense has taken care of a lot of the failed defensive lapses.”
Instead of pick-and-rolls leading to easy baskets and slow rotations leading to open shots, the Tar Heels are doing their jobs on an individual level so that no one gets stuck in the no man’s land that help defense rotations can create. UNC leaned on its defense to win the ACC Tournament last weekend in Washington, D.C., holding its opponents to 37.1 percent shooting, including 33.7 percent after halftime.
Despite a significant differential in field goal percentage (50.6-37.1) at the Verizon Center, UNC averaged a plus-5.0 rebounding margin and only coughed up 10 turnovers per game, a shade below its season average of 10.9.
“We wanted to win it so bad that we were willing to do anything,” Jackson said, “and that has to be every single game that we play. We’ve got to keep that mindset and keep it going.”
Paige and fellow senior Joel James both emphasized the role of maturity in UNC elevating its play in late February with the postseason on the horizon.
“I think we were getting to a point in the season where we realized we had a chance to win something,” Paige said. “We talk about winning an ACC title and then all of a sudden you’re at Cameron with the title on the line, and you have to do something about it. And then we talk about getting ready for March with our ACC Tournament run, so then you’re in the heart of it and you’ve got to do something about it or go home unhappy again.
“I think we’ve understood the moment better this year than we have in the past.”
Maintaining that mindset throughout the NCAA Tournament will prove pivotal in UNC’s desire to replace those little things with something slightly bigger in Houston.