Thoughts on N. Carolina 78 – Syracuse 74

[Note] This will be a slightly shorter piece than normal. I was only able to catch portions of the game last night. My apologies for missing the article on the Louisville game as well.

  1. What a satisfying win for the Tar Heels. They continue to play their best basketball of the season so far on this now 6-game winning streak and show no signs of turning back.
  2. As always against Syracuse, their zone defense is the hot issue. Just like when teams play Carolina, they know they’re going to get a team that pushes the tempo, pressures on defense, and rebounds the heck out of the ball. With Syracuse, opposing teams know the zone is coming, and there’s nothing they can do about it.  Last night the zone offense for the first 33 or so minutes of the game was tremendous, with multiple guys finding space in the middle area of the zone and guys hitting the open shots when they came. The worry for this team has always been what will happen if they don’t hit shots, and as last night shows, they’re hard to beat when they do.
  3. To speak a little more about those last 7 minutes or so when Syracuse went to a full court press: previously this season the Tar Heels have been nearly impossible to press with any efficacy. This is because, especially when the starters are in, there are 5 ball-handlers on the floor who all have the poise and ability to take the ball up the court against pressure defense and not panic. I’ve made numerous notes this season about how well this team has broken the press. But last night didn’t look great. It wasn’t that they couldn’t break the press and were turning it over in the backcourt, but more that they didn’t stay composed once they broke it to get a good shot in the half court to force Syracuse out of it.
  4. But despite some shaky minutes, and to note a quote from Coach Williams where UNC is “only playing good defense for the last 2 or 3 minutes,” the Tar Heels got stops and hit shots in crunch time. Joel Berry hit an unreal shot in traffic (arguably a foul) to put the Heels up 2 under 2 minutes (then two more FTs to seal it), and got 3 crucial stops: two when the game was tied and one while up two points.

Games like last night are why playing a difficult ACC season always serves this conference well in the postseason. That game looked a lot like an ACC or NCAA Tournament game, where one team gets out a builds a nice lead, but the other team claws back through sheer grit and determination to make it a game in the final 2 minutes. This team’s experience gave them an edge last night, and will be a difference maker in the month of March.

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Thoughts on N. Carolina 83 – Notre Dame 66

  1. It looked for a while, even late into the game, that the Tar Heels could have let this one get away from them. Notre Dame always seemed to hang around, occasionally hitting some shots and getting some stops that they could have squeaked out an ugly win in Chapel Hill, but a Carolina team that showed no real signs of any physical fatigue stayed strong down the stretch and pulled out what came to be a solid win.
  2. Carolina often took advantage of Notre Dame missing shots tonight, despite being hurt by John Mooney going 6-6 from 3 point land. Some forced, tough shots by ND guards in the first half went for long rebounds which allowed the UNC transition game to get going and stay strong throughout the entire game. The transition offense was key to the Tar Heels’ success in these 3 games, and has really showed just how much they rely on it to get easy buckets without having to grind it out in the half court.
  3. Two concerns on defense, one more than the other: the ball screen defense tonight was not good. It wasn’t good in the first game against ND where Gibbs sliced and diced all over South Bend. Tonight, especially in the 2nd half where Geben played a lot more minutes than he did in the 1st due to foul trouble, he got just about whatever he wanted. What’s concerning is how this contrasts to great ball screen defense on Saturday in Raleigh… the ND big men either had a pick-and-pop opportunity or an easy look (often a dunk). The second concern is the 3 point defense, which was only partly there. ND did not shoot the ball well as a team due in part to some good closeouts, but the concern was how Mooney could go 6-6. After a guy hits 2 or 3 in a row, the defense needs to tighten up and whoever is guarding that guy has to take it upon himself to stop his man from hitting another jumper.
  4. Another key to this stretch, which might fly under the radar because he hasn’t put up any notable stats, is having Seventh Woods back. He has played the role of coming in around the middle of each half for 3-4 minutes, playing some solid defense, not turning the ball over, and most importantly giving Joel Berry a break that’s longer than just 30 seconds of gameplay and a media timeout. This play from him has been better than Felton’s was in the same role during Woods’s injury, and has played an important part in keeping Berry fresh at the end of games.
  5. As mentioned earlier, ND was hanging around to the point that it was a bit uncomfortable, even getting the lead to 1 in the 2nd half. A key stretch was when Mooney got fouled and missed all three FTs, to which Carolina immediately responded with a Pinson bucket. The Heels went on a small run to force a ND timeout, but it did nothing to stop the Carolina push. The Heels scored 13 points going into the under-4 media timeout, which didn’t even truly happen on a dead ball as Brey called his last timeout, putting the game essentially out of reach.

What a way to end this 5-day stretch. The Tar Heels put together an always-emotional win against Duke, a revenge-win against NC State, and not the prettiest but we’ll all sure take it win tonight against Notre Dame. Credit to the training staff for keeping everyone in good shape and to the players for not letting anything divert their focus on this stretch. As always, a welcome day off for the guys tomorrow and a couple good days at practice will have them ready for a road matchup on Saturday in Louisville.

Thoughts on N. Carolina 96 – 89 NC State

  1. A consummate win for the Tar Heels.  Coming off a short turnaround and the massive win against Duke, Carolina makes the short trip to Raleigh to play a revenge game of sorts. Everyone knew the Wolfpack faithful would be out in full force this afternoon, but the Heels answered.
  2. This was a game of runs. State responded to a run by Carolina with 19 straight points in the first half, but then Carolina reeled off 7 straight points to go into halftime only down 2. After missing 13 shots in a row during the State run, down 2 at half on the road did not seem too daunting. Often at halftime and during late timeouts in close games, Coach Williams poses a question, adapted to whatever the situation: “If you’d have told me before the game we’d be down 2 at halftime after the other team scores 19 straight points you’d take it right?” To which the answer is always yes.
  3. Carolina hammered the boards, ending with a 41-24 advantage. As well, they poured in buckets in transition, especially in the second half. Textbook Carolina basketball. The defensive rebounding was very strong in the first 10 minutes or so, as the effects of some missed opportunities and turnovers could have been further exacerbated, but no second chance points given up provided some relief.
  4. What a game from Luke Maye with 33 points and 17 rebounds, he was nearly unconscious in the 2nd half with a cool 25. As well, during the stretch in the second half from the under-12 media timeout to the end of the game, Theo Pinson had his hands on the ball a lot. Twice he made tough passes to a cutting Luke Maye and Joel Berry, and ended with 5 second half assists. He facilitated a lot in that time, setting screens, driving to the basket for buckets, and often making the pass that led to the assist.
  5. All night long the Tar Heels took advantage of mismatches after screen and switches by NC State. One of the things that allowed the Heels to play so well against Duke was to play solid team defense against the apparent mismatches, and the Heels did the flipside of that coin on offense today. Often in both halves, State’s small guards in Dorn and Beverley got switched onto Theo Pinson or Luke Maye, to which both responded with strong takes and finishes around the basket. A side note, the points in paint were a big factor for UNC, with 21 second chance points, strong transition game, and perhaps the most important thing: aggressive drives to the basket throughout.
  6. It seems as though the Heels have turned a corner defensively. Aside from the 19-0 run State had in the first half (for perspective, Carolina also missed 13 shots in a row during that span, many around the basket), the defense was solid. Carolina did a previously uncharacteristically great job of preventing open looks from 3, and challenged nearly every shot around the rim. The ball screen defense was spectacular tonight, where the big man helped long enough for the guard to recover and then recovered to his own man down low, and the guards did well to not get held up taking the wrong path around a screen or running directly into it.

Regardless of your view of the rivalry or non-rivalry between Carolina and State, it always feels good to get revenge on a team that beat you earlier in the season, and it always feels good to win this game. Despite a bunch of ping-pong like plays where loose balls ended up out of bounds or in the hands of State, and way too many unforced turnovers, the Heels held steadfast and hit shots when it mattered down the stretch to hold off a tough effort from NC State. Onto the third game in this 5 day stretch.

Thoughts on N. Carolina 82 – 78 Duke

  1. It’s almost more difficult to write about this win from all the excitement than it is to write about a game after a loss. I just want to bask in the win forever. The Heels put together perhaps their best and toughest-played game all season to defend the Smith Center floor and send the Dookies back to Durham with their devil-tails between their legs.
  2. Many things contributed to the win this evening, especially by the upperclassmen. Kenny Williams had a monstrous first half, Joel Berry had a monstrous second, Cam Johnson was in the thick of it the whole game, and Luke Maye had another near double-double performance. Those guys stepped up and did the things they had to do to win.
  3. The first and second half was a tale of two different teams for Carolina. Some really hot 3 point shooting in the first kept the Tar Heels in it down 4 at halftime despite Duke’s 58% shooting effort, and about the best defensive performance of the season in the 2nd allowed the Heels to hold a lead through an over 5-minute scoring drought. Duke only scored 29 points in the second half, much lower than what would amount to the 89.6 points per game they average. I can’t stress enough how important the Tar Heel defense was in the final ten minutes, as during the UNC scoring drought, Duke also went on a
  4. It was clear from the beginning that beating Duke was going to be largely dependent on slowing down Bagley and Carter, limiting their touches in the paint and boxing out on every possession. The first half didn’t look too great in that category, as Bagley, Carter and Bolden all had dunks in what seemed to be a short amount of time, and they had a number of post-up buckets. But the defense changed its course in the second, not allowing as many open looks around the basket, and doing a better job rebounding on defense.
  5. It’s hard to say if there was one player that changed the complexion of this game more than any other. The tale of the stat sheet is the 20-11 Carolina edge in offensive rebounding, and 44-38 overall rebounding advantage. With Pinson and Maye giving up about roughly 5 inches apiece to Bagley and Carter, the rebounding load came from the newcomer Cam Johnson with a team-high 13, 6 of them offensive. Joel Berry hits 4 free-throws in crunch time Kenny Williams hits 6 threes, Garrison Brooks grabs a respectable 4 rebounds his fellow freshman Sterling Manley goes 4-4 from the FT line. It was all on tonight.

We saw what this Carolina team is capable of. Everything that was lacking in the 3-game skid and in some less-than-pretty wins over the past 7 or 8 games was on display tonight in Chapel Hill. Duke had a chance to make a comeback in the final minutes, but some rock-solid composure and tough defense held their efforts at bay. There was offensive rebounding, transition scoring, great defense, 3 point shooting, and a hell of a lot of energy. It’s one of the best feelings in the world to beat those guys from down the road, and when this Carolina team is playing like a real Carolina team, they can really make some spectacular things happen.

Thoughts on N. Carolina 78 – 82 Clemson

  1. It’s always a terrible feeling being on the losing end of a court-storming. There’s the argument that it’s ok to for others to storm the court against us because in a way it solidifies the status that one program is superior to another, but that doesn’t make it feel any better.
  2. As in past losses in non-conference play and in the ACC, too big of first half holes proved insurmountable for the Tar Heels. Some really solid play from the likes of Cam Johnson and Joel Berry (who’d had some tough games the last couple weeks) nearly brought the Tar Heels back. The defense was there, the offense was there. It is consoling at least to a little bit to know that this team is capable of playing good basketball on both ends after what we’ve seen the last two games, but unfortunately there just weren’t enough stops and buckets from the Tar Heels to pull off a 16 point comeback.
  3. The loss of Theo Pinson obviously hurt. The Heels have played their best basketball when he’s on the top of his game, and having him tonight most certainly would have changed the complexion of the game.
  4. One thing that helped Carolina some tonight was doubling down on post entries. On the second defensive possession of the game there was a double team which led to a pass being thrown cross-court directly to Cam Johnson, and Joel Berry had a huge steal after doubling down which led to a Carolina bucket to continue chipping away at the lead on a 14-1 run by the Heels.
  5. 3 point defense. Enough said.

The Tar Heels have now dropped 3 in a row for the first time in 5 seasons, reaching all the way back to my sophomore year when Leslie McDonald, JP Tokoto, and Jackson Simmons were still donning the Argyle. Things aren’t going well for the Tar Heels right now, and yet, there is still time to improve.

Thoughts on N. Carolina 91 – 95 NC State

  1. These losses are difficult to write about. It’s no fun. The difficult thing about today is the Heels did play pretty well for stretches in the first and second halves. Down the stretch though, State made some plays at crucial times and responded with buckets to some bigtime UNC plays that ultimately left the Tar Heels short in overtime.
  2. Luke Maye with 31 points and 12 rebounds, and Theo Pinson with 22 points and 15 rebounds (both career highs) unfortunately were not enough to propel the Tar Heels. Theo Pinson was particularly aggressive today, driving to the basket consistently and going to the boards on a mission. I was impressed, especially early in the game, with the intensity and effort of the whole team. The speed that the ball was moving around the perimeter and guys were flying around on defense was encouraging after a comparatively flat effort at Virginia Tech.
  3. Three point defense continues to be an area of weakness for the Tar Heels. For reasons beyond my understanding, every team seems to have some uncharacteristically good shooting day against the Tar Heels. That’s no excuse, but something’s gotta give at some point. It also seems to coincide with poor shooting performances by the Tar Heels offensively. Here and there today the shot selection was not ideal (but that happens nearly every game), but for the most part the jumpers came within the flow of the offense but did not fall.
  4. NC State’s height today played a major factor. There were a few times today where Yurtseven got rebounds at crucial times, either leading to an NC State bucket or curtailing a UNC run. The biggest play stands out at under a minute left in overtime: needing a stop badly, the Heels played good defense for 25 seconds, forcing State to hoist up a 3. It bounced off the front of the rim, with Yurtseven corralling in the rebound over two Tar Heels and putting it back up immediately to make it a two possession game.
  5. Despite poor shooting, we saw today what the aggressiveness of the Tar Heels can be and how much it can make up for shortcomings. Even against a team that was on fire from 3 pt land, the Heels maintained leads for stretches and battled back from small deficits. A few really nice transition buckets, one standing out from Cam Johnson where he streaked up the sideline opposite the bench and got a nice pass from Joel Berry for a layup ahead of the State defense. Luke Maye also had a couple coast-to-coast takes.

In his postgame pressure, Coach Williams congratulated State on the win. As much as it hurts to say things like that about a rival, State did play well today. Today we saw a game, like most in college basketball, where every single play matters. The margin for error, and therefore the difference between a win and loss, is so small, and can seemingly be traced back to any number of plays throughout the game. The coaching staff is never shy about coaching the players to never take a play off, that attention to detail is paramount, and the little things lead to the big things. The Tar Heels are getting there, but have not arrived.

Thoughts on N. Carolina 69 – Virginia Tech 80

  1. Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, the ACC season never gets easier. Every night is a battle, and there wasn’t much to feel good about tonight. Aside from two great individual performances by Joel Berry and Luke Maye, the Tar Heels couldn’t quite put the pieces together.
  2. Defensively there were some things that went wrong tonight we haven’t seen much of this season. At least 4 or 5 times, some difficult Tar Heel missed shots led to fast break layups on the other end against 1 or no defenders. That is a result of a number of things: in most offense schemes, the point guard gets back early when the shot goes up to guard against the fast break. But when the point guard takes the shot, as Joel Berry did often tonight, there has to be some extra focus from the other guards to rotate up and take the empty defensive spot near half court. Tonight the offensive rotations weren’t the quickest, and the aggressiveness by Virginia Tech to push the ball up fast after missed shots allowed them to get some easy looks.
  3. Obviously the second half was a boon for the Tar Heels, but aside from the last 5 minutes or so of the first half where VT scored a lot and Carolina didn’t, there was some good play. There was some solid ball movement that got Luke Maye and Brandon Robinson a couple good looks, and there were multiple attempts at taking charges and guys getting on the floor. I wrote multiple times earlier in the season how great the Tar Heels looked taking 3 or 4 charges a game, guys hustling a lot and laying their bodies on the line for loose balls, and how those things made for a few really good defensive games. But those early efforts didn’t seem to hold, as VT went on an 18-4 run to end that half, and the Tar Heels didn’t get stops and didn’t find the bottom of the net.
  4. The Tar Heels rebounded the ball well on defense tonight though, but a tie in offensive boards wasn’t enough to make up any ground. A cause for concern tonight was the lack of foul shots on the game. In past years, the talk around the charity stripe focused on making free throws. This year the talk ahs been about taking them. Often the Tar Heels might have had 2 or 3 guys taking 5 FTs apiece in a game, unlike tonight where the whole team shot 5. The shift to a more outside-in approach this year has not boded well when the Tar Heels don’t get to the line simultaneously.
  5. Kenny Williams being out for a lot of the second half with 4 fouls hurt the team. The domino effect of him coming out puts sophomore or freshman reserves in his place, and the inexperience dealing with an away environment against a team having a really good game proves very difficult.

A whirlwind of bad hit the Tar Heels tonight. A slew of unforced errors, some hot shooting from VT, a road game after playing two days prior, low bench scoring and a few shooting woes ultimately meant the Tar Heels came up short. The next few days will be ample time, as always, to take a long hard look at the mistakes of tonight and review them in the film room and on the court. The home game this weekend will be a test for the Tar Heels to bounce back against a plucky team in NC State that has won a few tough games.