Miami poses difficult first ACC tourney test for UNC

The Tar Heels are 2-5 in their last seven games against the Hurricanes, including a 15-point drubbing earlier this season

Brad Penner—X02835
Mar 8

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — North Carolina didn’t have the luxury of hand-picking its opponent in the first round of the ACC tournament. Miami and Syracuse played for that distinction on Tuesday. If the Tar Heels had their preference, though, it probably wouldn’t be the Hurricanes. They’ve lost five of their last seven against coach Jim Larrañaga’s team, including a 15-point drubbing in Coral Gables back on Jan. 28. They’ve won five straight against the Orange, by contrast. That lack of success against Miami, combined with its No. 25 national ranking and 21-10 record make Wednesday’s matchup perhaps the most difficult quarterfinal ever faced by an ACC tournament top seed. “The way they play defense, I think it fits right into our favor off the dribble and things like that,” said Ja’Quan Newton, whose 11 points and six assists helped the Hurricanes beat the Orange 62-57 at Barclays Center. “When teams punch us like that we’ve got a lot of guys who can create off the dribble, go in there and finish or pass so we’re very confident going into (the game).” They should be. Just over a month ago, they frustrated the Tar Heels into by far their worst shooting half of the season by limiting them to just six field goals on 29 attempts over the first 20 minutes on the way to building a 39-22 halftime lead. The key to Miami’s success that day was a stifling defense that denied UNC’s big men the ball and forced it into a one-dimensional jump shooting team. Not only was the strategy successful in limiting the low post duo of Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks to a combined 12 points, it also helped the Hurricanes outrebound the Tar Heels 41-36. That’s a noteworthy feat, considering that UNC leads the nation with a plus-13 rebounding margin and has been beaten on the boards only two other times all season. The Tar Heels’ backcourt didn’t help matters much. Although ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson scored 21 points in the loss, guards Joel Berry and Kenny Williams — who won’t play in Wednesday’s rematch because of a knee injury — made just one shot between them. Out of 16 attempts. “Their whole game plan is that they want to get their bigs involved a lot. I don’t know what the game plan is going to be, but whatever defense we’re going to be in, we’re going to compete and fight hard. We’re going to play together on the defensive end.” It’s going to take another strong effort, because as Larrañaga pointed out after the Syracuse game, there’s a good likelihood that the Tar Heels won’t shoot as poorly as they did in that earlier meeting. As UNC coach Roy Williams pointed out, the postseason is a different animal from anything that came before it. “I separate the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament and don’t ever consider it a continuation,” he said. “Let’s go to New York and play as hard as we can play and perhaps they’ll let us stay around and play longer.” Whereas the regular season meeting was the Tar Heels’ second game in three days, having played at home against Virginia Tech the previous Thursday, this time UNC is well rested while the Hurricanes are coming back from a game just 24 hours earlier. And fatigue isn’t Miami’s greatest concern. “There’s no practice,” Larrañaga said. “We’re not going anywhere and practicing this. So it’s more about mental preparation and relying on our skills that we’ve developed over a long period of time, both offensively and defensively.” According to Miami guard D.J. Vasiljevic, who made three 3-pointers and scored 13 points off the bench against Syracuse, there is at least one positive to playing a team coming off a double bye. “You get used to the rims, get used to the court and the atmosphere,” he said. “It’s always a bit chilly in there to start the game, so that plays an important part. But I think we have an advantage because we’ve actually played there and are used to it.” Despite the Hurricanes’ familiarity with the surroundings in Brooklyn and their previous victory against the Tar Heels, Larrañaga remains wary of a team that has aspirations on making another run at the national championship it missed by a buzzer-beating 3-pointer a year ago. “We have the utmost respect for Carolina,” the Miami coach said. They won the regular season championship. A lot of people are picking them to win the national championship, so we know we’re the underdog. But we like that we’ve moved on and we’re in the quarterfinals now.”