CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No zone defense is exactly the same, and No. 12 North Carolina has yet to combat the scheme consistently.
In the Tar Heels’ 80-78 win over Pittsburgh on Tuesday, it was the Panthers’ 3-2 zone, with 6-foot-7 wing Jamel Artis at the top of the key, that caused trouble for UNC early. Pitt’s length, with all five of their starters standing 6-foot-6 or taller, proved to be a challenge throughout the evening.
The Panthers’ hybrid variation of the zone defense took the Tar Heels out of their game plan early, tempting them into five 3-point attempts in their first eight shots.
“It forces us to shoot threes, and our offense is based on getting the ball inside and getting the big men involved,” junior guard Joel Berry said after the victory. “They were a long team so it was kind of hard to get it into the middle, and that’s what we want to do, but it forces us to shoot those threes and we don’t want to do that.”
While the outside shot proved effective early – Berry and Justin Jackson combined for six 3-pointers in the first half – the Panthers’ length forced the long-range shooters at times to rush their attempts.
“They had long guys up at the top and they were trying to locate Justin and me out on the wings, so I got looks but it was just because I was getting the ball out fast before they came to close out,” Berry said.
Once UNC’s perimeter shots started falling midway through the first half, Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings elevated the back line of his defense to be able to extend the front line on the wings. The Tar Heels countered by feeding the post.
Pitt’s zone was visibly exposed at the 13-minute mark of the second half, when senior Nate Britt rocketed a pass from the top of the key between two Panther defenders to a wide-open Isaiah Hicks in the hole. The senior finished the sequence off with an emphatic dunk.
The play wouldn’t have been possible if Pittsburgh’s defense wasn’t forced to step out into the wings, according to Hicks.
“They were playing back and watching the lobs and stuff,” the senior forward said. “We moved around individually and it opens it up, and then we got in the middle and I think they were trying to stop a lot of 3-pointers.”
Tuesday’s performance may have been a snapshot of a solution to conquering the zone, a defense the Tar Heels have had a rocky relationship with this season.
There still is room to improve, though, says Berry. The junior says the Tar Heels need to continue to work the ball inside-out to truly be effective against the zone, a game plan they were unable to execute in their ACC losses to Georgia Tech and Miami.
Even with nine 3-pointers and 34 points in the paint on Tuesday, Berry says his still has a long way to go before confidently conquering the defensive tactics.
“I think our big men just have to do a little bit of a better job moving in and cutting in open space,” Berry said. “As guards, we have to be able to look in there a little more and find the big men.”
And while UNC was effective against zone looks by Syracuse and Virginia Tech, the inconsistent offensive execution offers tempting possibilities for opponents.
“Everybody is probably going to start throwing zone at us because we struggled against Georgia Tech and Miami,” sophomore forward Luke Maye said. “We’ve had times where we’ve played really well against the it and times like tonight where we did some good things, but we really need to continue to work on it in practice.”
UNC shot 50 percent for the game, including a 37.5 percent mark from 3-point range.