CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Roy Williams knew the moment would come, he just never knew when.
With five minutes left in UNC’s regional final matchup with Kentucky, and his Tar Heels trailing 64-59, Williams called a timeout, gathered his team together and told them they were switching to zone defense.
“I keep thinking we’re going to need to do it,” Williams said on his final radio show of the season on Monday night. “So if you go back and look at our practice plans for the last three weeks, probably 50 to 60 percent of the time we’re working on zone.”
The change proved effective, as UNC’s defense created two defensive stops out of the timeout which led to consecutive buckets from Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson. On the following possession, with the lead cut down to one, the Tar Heel defense made arguably its biggest play of the game.
Kentucky guard De’Aaron Fox fed the ball down low to Bam Adebayo, who was sandwiched between a closing Luke Maye and Kennedy Meeks. The 6-foot-10 senior swatted Adebayo’s dunk attempt from behind and Pinson scooped up the ball to start the fast break. He was subsequently fouled on a dunk attempt.
Pinson converted both foul shots to give UNC a 66-65 lead, and John Calipari subbed in Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins, both of whom can knock down perimeter shots.
“All of the sudden they had four 3-point shooters (on the floor),” Williams said. “I turned around to the bench and said ‘now that’s enough, let's go back to man.’”
One minute and 41 seconds.
That’s how long Williams leaned on his zone defense, but the 6-0 spark it provided en route to a 75-73 win saved the Tar Heels’ season.
That must have been a very special moment last night for Luke Maye.
“I told his dad seven or eight years ago when he was in camp, ‘just don’t be in a hurry because I think he’s going to be good enough.’ I kept feeling that way and last Spring in my office he said, ‘Coach, nobody is going to work harder in the offseason than I’m going to work.’ I trusted him and I believed in him and I’m hopeful this success he’s having now will make him feel that way again this offseason.”
What are your emotions about going to another Final Four?
“It’s what you coach for. My favorite practice of the year by far is the Friday in front of the public at the Final Four because it’s also the coach’s clinic and all of those suckers are in the stands watching you coach your team. I like that…. In the locker room was fun. I don’t need a lot of that, I’ve got some personal satisfaction.”
It seemed like both teams played better defensively in your game against Kentucky than in your game with them earlier this season.
“The pace of the game was still hard, but both teams were better defensively and then the stakes were a lot higher and kids don’t feel as free as they do on that stage.”
What did you think about Justin Jackson’s defense against Malik Monk? Monk only had 12 points, with six of them coming in the last minute on desperation threes.
“Well it was the last 30 seconds… the last one was unbelievable. I thought, ‘my gosh, he made that?’ You look at it on tape and he’s covered even better than I thought he was. He had to change his form just to get the shot off. It was big time. Justin did a great job of chasing around the screens and was there. When we played them out in Vegas he got way too many open looks… He missed a couple early and hadn’t shot well the last four or five games and I was hoping it would last for one more game.”
Kennedy Meeks has 28 rebounds over the last two games, including his career-high of 17 against Kentucky. What’s been working for him?
“Well the 17 was really something because he’s playing against Bam, Willis, and Humphries – some pretty big guys. Against Butler, we had a size advantage inside. But 17 rebounds yesterday was huge.”
Any possibility of Kenny Williams returning for the Final Four?
“No. Bottom line is he’s not healthy enough. The doctors would not release him at this point.”
What did you think about Theo Pinson’s final few minutes against Kentucky?
“Well he made a layup early in the game and then he disappeared for quite a while. Down the stretch he made the big free throws, made the baseline jumper, made the play at the end of the game, so he was Theo at that point. In preseason he was really playing well, and then all of the sudden he goes down with the foot and he’s out for a long time and when he came back his assist-to-error ratio was sensational and he was making plays for everybody… then he got hurt again and since then it’s been up and down for him.”
Will Joel Berry be rehabbing this week?
“Yeah he started it today. He had treatment this morning, had treatment this afternoon, was in the pool at about four o’clock this afternoon. He’ll get treatment two or three hours everyday and I’m hopeful that by the time Thursday gets here he might be able to practice. But it’s a scary thing for us, no question.”