PHILADELPHIA – The Hoosiers thought they could run with North Carolina. They are not the first team to think that, and they certainly won’t be the last.
On Thursday, Indiana’s locker room was full of players providing media sound bites about their ability to not only match the Tar Heels in transition, but ultimately beat the blue bloods at their own game.
Theo Pinson’s response? “Let’s go.”
Arkansas was the last team to try it in the NCAA Tournament, keeping pace last March in the second round until the race proved too daunting over the final 10 minutes.
That reality struck Indiana (27-8) much earlier on Friday. UNC (31-6) needed little more than 11 minutes to build a 31-17 lead. The Hoosiers were never able to cut their deficit to single digits.
The Tar Heels averaged 1.4 points per possession, including a ridiculous 1.9 points over a nine-possession stretch midway through the second half to push their lead to 84-64 with 9:52 to play.
You can criticize Roy Williams, like most coaches, on a variety of topics. You can knock his in-game X’s and O’s, his refusal to embrace the zone or his stubborn approach in calling (or not calling) timeouts. You cannot criticize him for what he does best, and that’s run. No one does it better. Not this year, and not for most of the past 28 years.
His teams are rarely fast enough for his liking. It’s a common occurrence to see Williams on the sidelines motioning his team to hurry up and push the ball down the court.
“We love to run,” senior guard Marcus Paige said after the 101-86 win. “That’s all we do at practice, every day, is work on running. So when we play a team that wants to run with us, we take that as a challenge because I don’t think anybody is going to outrun us. That’s our mentality…
“I’m telling you, Coach Williams and running, that’s our bread and butter. That’s what we do.”
Indiana had good reason to push the tempo, given Cousy Award finalist Yogi Ferrell’s ability in the backcourt and its size disadvantage in the post. The Hoosiers don’t operate at full tilt for the entirety of their games, instead picking their spots and accelerating when the opportunity arises. UNC, on the other hand, looks to run constantly.
“That’s our game,” sophomore forward Justin Jackson said. “Teams in the past who have tried to run with us have not really been successful. Obviously, Indiana is a great team, but they kind of played into how we play.”
Or, as Pinson put it: “That’s what we do. We practice that every day, getting up and down, so it was basically a practice today.”
The Tar Heels have talked all season long about how forcing turnovers and getting out in transition allows them to establish an offensive rhythm. That was evident at the Wells Fargo Center as UNC turned 12 Indiana turnovers into 21 points and scored on 63 percent of its possessions. The Tar Heels shot 61.6 percent for the game, including 55 percent from 3-point range (11-of-20).
“The good thing about us is that we have a lot of depth and we have a lot of guys that can score,” Paige said. “So when we get out on the break, it allows everybody to get a chance to get in a rhythm and get going.”
Nate Britt was a beneficiary of the transition game, scoring all seven of his points before halftime. Jackson, who Paige described as the best on the team in running the floor and finishing, scored 13 of his 14 points in the first half. Brice Johnson shook off a slow start to post his 22nd double-double – tying Billy Cunningham (‘64) for the school record – with 20 points and 10 rebounds. With Isaiah Hicks in foul trouble, Kennedy Meeks provided a secondary post option with 15 points and nine rebounds.
Paige got it started for UNC, knocking down his first five 3-pointers and finishing with 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting (6-of-9 from 3).
Everyone flourished for the Tar Heels, which is a dire consequence for teams that ask them to run. By pushing tempo, UNC is able to get its guards and wings easy looks at the rim and its big men touches against a defense that's not set. The fast break flows into UNC’s secondary break, which transitions into its freelance offense.
“Everything is predicated off us being able to run the ball,” Paige said.
Williams heaped praise on Indiana’s ability to run during Friday’s breakfast, telling his team the Hoosiers’ regular-season rout of Maryland was the best he had seen a team run in a long time.
UNC countered by sprinting back more times than not to prevent open looks at the rim. Indiana shot 41.0 percent, its third-lowest mark of the season, while knocking down 41.9 percent of its 3-pointers (13-of-31), the majority of which came after the lead had ballooned to 16 in the second half.
“North Carolina played outstanding,” Indiana head coach Tom Crean said. “If they play like that, even remotely close to that, then they're going to be very, very hard to beat. And I hope they do, because Roy deserves it.”
The Tar Heels were at their best on Friday, doing what they do best.