GREENSBORO, N.C. — The final numbers showed the continuation of a disturbing trend, but North Carolina’s players walked off the court feeling encouraged.
Considering the quality of the offense they faced, they played better defense in their 83-76 victory over Notre Dame on Sunday at the Greensboro Coliseum than they had in recent games.
“We were more active today,” point guard Joel Berry II said. “I know they knocked down some big-time shots and made a couple of wide-open 3s. But I think we did a great job overall of just being active, whether it was rotating or playing on the ball.”
Berry made the biggest shot of the game for the Tar Heels (21-4, 9-2 ACC), hitting a jumper to give them a 77-73 lead with 3:33 to play. But it was five consecutive defensive stops after that shot, including a steal leading to a dunk by Justin Jackson, that allowed UNC to hold on for the win.
“They’re hard to guard,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “They put so much pressure on you. During the course of the game, I thought they were shooting 70 percent from 3. Then I looked down, and they shot about the same thing we did.”
The Fighting Irish (17-7, 6-5) made 9-of-26 shots from 3-point range, outscoring the Tar Heels (6-of-17) by nine points on 3-pointers. It wasn’t enough to overcome UNC’s 40-18 advantage on points in the paint.
Still, Notre Dame finished with an average of 1.18 points per possession, becoming the seventh UNC opponent in the last eight games to surpass 0.90 points per possession. For comparison’s sake, nine of UNC’s first 14 opponents failed to crack 0.85 points per possession.
As a whole, the offenses are better in ACC play than what UNC plays against in its nonconference games, but that fact doesn’t account for all of UNC’s recent defensive woes. The Tar Heels entered Sunday having dropped from 10th nationally in defensive efficiency to 32nd over the past two weeks, and they allowed a season-high 55.6-percent field-goal shooting and 13 3-pointers against Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
A game without versatile swingman Theo Pinson against the Fighting Irish, who make nearly 40 percent of their 3-pointers and more than 80 percent of their free throws, wasn’t an ideal setup for trying to break out of a defensive slump. But after a productive couple of days of practice — “We dug in and were aggressive and learned their stuff,” Kennedy Meeks said — the Tar Heels came out with increased intensity.
UNC opened the game on a 9-2 run, stopping penetration into the lane and forcing difficult shots off the dribble rather than allowing open 3-pointers off Notre Dame’s drive-and-kick attack. This was a case of the Tar Heels making a serious effort to disrupt rather than displaying a “hope they miss” mentality that has annoyed Williams.
“Knowing what we can do when we’re active on defense and we’re playing with the effort and energy that we’re supposed to, we started the game and it was like suffocating,” guard Kenny Williams said. “They had to force shots at the end of the shot clock at the start of the game. That just shows how good we can be on the defensive end.”
Said Meeks: “It was just having energy and being aggressive and really listening to detail. The last game that we lost to Miami, we didn’t listen to detail at all. I think we definitely bought in.”
The question now is whether UNC can build on the effort going forward.
The Tar Heels play at Duke on Thursday night and will go against an offensive attack that is similar to Notre Dame’s. Ball screens will be plentiful, and UNC’s big men will find themselves having to defend smaller, quicker players away from the basket. As was the case against the Fighting Irish, keeping the ball out of the paint, identifying shooters, and contesting 3-point shots will be paramount.
The good news for UNC fans is that in a rivalry game that will attract a nationwide audience, effort and energy should not be an issue.
“The way we’re thinking is that if we don’t play defense, we’re going to go to Duke and get beat by 30,” Meeks said. “I know we don’t want that. Our main objective is to always be aggressive on the defensive end, and today we showed that. I think it should carry over to Thursday.”