Led by a stifling man-to-man defense and freshman Rashad McCants' 25 points, UNC rolled to a surprisingly easy 67-56 victory over No. 2 Kansas before a crowd of 10,758 in Wednesday night's Preseason NIT semifinal at Madison Square Garden, and displayed to a national television audience why last season was the mother of all aberrations.
"It was just a special night," said UNC coach Matt Doherty, whose team will face Stanford on Friday night in the Preseason NIT title game. "The kids trusted, they believed, they went out and executed with great poise and confidence. I thought our defense was very, very good, and obviously, it was not Kansas' best night. I think they were a little out of sync."
Thanks to UNC's rather simple recipe. Defense.
Carolina (4-0) limited the Jayhawks to 40.7 percent from the field – 35.5 percent in the second half – and amassed 14 steals and 11 blocked shots. And Kansas' reputation for easy backdoor layups was more myth than reality tonight. Not that the Jayhawks didn't have any, but considering how far the Tar Heels extended their man defense, KU had little success cutting to the hoop, and pretty much everywhere else for that matter.
"A lot of teams don't understand that," UNC freshman center Sean May said about the importance of defense. "And we work a lot on defense and being in the right position when teams come down the floor, and we knew Kansas could run. So our biggest thing was to get back because he [Doherty] said that [Nick] Collison and [Wayne] Simien could run. Our guards did a great job pressuring Hinrich, Miles and Langford. And we just did a good job on team defense."
Usually a quality perimeter shooting team, UNC held Kansas to just 2-9 from 3-point range.
"We wanted to pressure hard on all of their offensive plays, and we just wanted to slow the momentum down," McCants said. "They are a fast team, a very, very fast team and they're used to scoring up in the 90s. We just wanted to slow the game down and take our opportunities."
McCants was the story offensively. Dazzling the New York crowd with an array of drives to the basket, pull-up jumpers, and breathtaking body control, the Asheville native was 10-15 from the field.
"It really wasn't about me," McCants said. "It was the offense that we executed as a team that got me opportunities to drive and score. They were team points."
Leading 29-28 with 3:54 left in the first half; Carolina went on a 33-13 run to take a 62-41 lead with 7:58 left to play, and the Jayhawks were reeling.
Sophomore Melvin Scott started the run by dropping a quick five points on KU and lifting his mates with stellar defensive play. Scott (seven points) had five steals in the first half and completely disrupted the 'Hawks' flow, throwing them off balance even more than they already were.
"Our defense was so great tonight – maybe the best we have played since I got here," Scott said. "I was just doing my job. If I can come in and get the team going, either with offense or defense, then that's what I will do."
Kansas' only lead was at 3-0 and the game was tied just twice, at 10-10 and 12-12. But the Jayhawks never got closer.
Yet as impressive as the Heels were in the first half, in which they led 38-29 at the intermission, they were even more striking in the second.
UNC was credited with six steals and nine blocked shots in the final period. May, who finished with eight points, 11 rebounds, five blocks and four steals, with all but two points and two rebounds coming in the second half, was a warrior in the paint. Pulling his offensive game away from the basket, May knew his greatest contribution would come in other areas.
"In our offense, we were looking to drive from the wing," May said. "I wasn't posting up at all tonight. I knew I had to get my stuff off the boards and also control the defensive boards and I thought I did pretty well tonight."
Jawad Williams finished with 15 points and freshman point guard Raymond Felton had 10 points and four assists.
Kansas (2-1) was paced by Nick Collison's 19 points. Kirk Hinrich added 13 points while Wayne Simien chipped in 11.
But for UNC this was yet another opportunity to separate itself from last year's misery. The Heels may be taking baby steps as the nation's youngest team, but they have suddenly ascended into big boy territory, and now the pressure, and expectations, will soar.
"For the fans we are never going to get big heads because we are working so hard for these fans," Felton said, when asked if this was too much too soon. "Yeah, we are going to try to win every game. And if we go 30-something and 0 that's great, but I know we are going to lose some games. We lost an exhibition game. You're going to lose some and you're going to win some. Get a big head? Nah. You have to be confident about your game. But you can't get a big head and think you're going to blow everybody out."
What a difference 53 weeks makes.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.