BROOKLYN, N.Y. – A year ago, top-seeded North Carolina found its defensive identity in the second half of its ACC Tournament quarterfinal win over Pittsburgh. On Thursday, the Tar Heels may have done just the same, holding No. 9 seed Miami to 30.0 percent shooting after halftime in their 78-53 victory.
The Panthers shot 48.1 percent in the first half at the Verizon Center in Washington, a good enough effort to stay within four points of the Tar Heels at the break. Miami followed a similar pattern at the Barclays Center, shooting 43.5 percent and keeping UNC off the offensive glass to enter the halftime locker room down, 34-29.
The Hurricanes scored on two of their first three possessions after halftime, and then missed 20 of their final 27 field goal attempts. UNC forced nine turnovers in the final 18 minutes of play, scoring 10 points of the miscues, and locked down Jim Larranaga’s squad while blowing the game open with 53.1 percent shooting on the offensive end.
A competitive game against a NCAA Tournament-bound opponent turned into a clinic taught by Roy Williams and executed by his players.
“That's the thing about North Carolina,” Larranaga told reporters after the game. “They're very predictable what they're trying to do, and our players knew what they were trying to do. We just couldn't stop it. Our attention to detail, our focus at the defensive end was impacted by how poorly we were playing offense. You miss shots. You turn it over. You give them some easy baskets. You get frustrated with your offense, then all of a sudden you're thinking about your offense when you should be playing defense.”
UNC won the ACC regular season title in part by holding league opponents to 43.4 percent shooting, good for fourth place. There were too many inconsistent efforts, though, for Roy Williams’s liking. Too many lackadaisical hedges on ball screens, too many drives to the rim, too many kick outs for open looks from the 3-point line.
Those types of miscues can be crippling in postseason play, and that’s a cold hard truth Williams plays on repeat to not only his players, but also to fans and media. The brutality of March is the fragile nature of longevity. Lose and go home. It’s that awareness that serves as additional motivation this time of year, especially on the defensive end for the Tar Heels.
“This is like identical to last season,” senior guard Nate Britt said. “Coach has been preaching it all season, but coming into the tournament, he really emphasizes it. I think last year against Pitt we really turned the corner with our defense and I think we did the same thing tonight. I think tonight was one of our better defensive games of the year.”
Another evident truth for this group of Tar Heels, not unlike most of Roy Williams’s other teams, is that offense is rarely the limiting factor in making a deep postseason run. UNC’s 122.3 adjusted offensive efficiency rating, good for fourth nationally, is higher than the 2005 and 2009 title teams, higher than the 2012 squad that was a Kendall Marshall injury shy of a national championship matchup with Kentucky and just shy of last season’s national championship runner-up.
UNC’s defensive efficiency rating, however, trails all of those teams, according to kenpom.com. Improved defensive play over the next four weeks is critical to ensuring that there is another four weeks.
And so UNC took the first step in the second half on Thursday, frustrating the Hurricanes on the ball, in the passing lanes and against the ball screen.
“We saw what we can do once we locked in defensively,” junior wing Theo Pinson said. “Miami’s a really good team. They put you in a whole lot of different situations with ball screens. Very elite guards, so everybody has to play. All five guys have to be active and alert, and we did a good job of that in the second half.”
When the Tar Heels were playing their best ball early in the season, they were staying in front of the ball, which negated the need for help and thereby eliminated a scrambling rotation. The result was more hands up on shots, more defensive rebounds and more hands in passing lanes to force turnovers. There’s a snowball effect in play when defensive intensity yields results, and UNC is hoping to ride that momentum for as deep into March as it can.