UNC flips switch to postseason mode with strong tourney opener

The Tar Heels heeded an often-heard message from coach Roy Williams, turned up the defensive intensity and avenged a painful regular season loss in their ACC Tournament opener in Brooklyn

Brad Penner—USA Today Sports
Mar 9

BROOKLYN — It’s an annual rite of spring.Every year at this time, Roy Williams sits his players down in the locker room, either before or during a game early in the postseason, and reminds them that he’s never had a championship team that didn’t play great defense.It’s a motivational tactic Joel Berry and his teammates have heard so many times, they can recite it almost word-for-word from memory.And yet, it’s a challenge to which the Tar Heels respond more times than not.It happened again Thursday, as UNC clicked into postseason mode by turning up the defensive intensity and rolling to a 78-53 beating of Miami in its ACC Tournament opener at Barclays Center. The win sends the Tar Heels into a semifinal matchup with Duke that will have much more at stake than a rubber match between rivals.”Honestly, he says that every day about how his championship teams play great defense,” Berry said. “I don’t want to get in trouble, but we get tired of hearing it. He doesn’t care, so we have no choice. He’s right, though.”It was evident from the opening possession Thursday that Williams’ message was received loud and clear.The Tar Heels swarmed the ball, challenging virtually every pass and making it difficult for the Hurricanes to get an open look at the basket. They forced six turnovers in the opening 10 minutes and disrupted the Miami offense by tipping several other balls.On the other end of the court, UNC was able to turn defense into offense by getting easy baskets off transition. In its halfcourt sets, big men Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks were effective in attacking the interior of the Hurricanes’ zone while combining for 29 points and 13 rebounds.It was a complete reversal from the first time the Tar Heels played Miami, a 15-point drubbing at the hands of the Hurricanes in Miami on Jan. 28.The difference, Hicks said, was in the aggressiveness with which his team played.”When we were down there, we just looked bad,” said Hicks, whose team-leading 19 points came on just five field goals and a 9 for 9 performance from the free throw line. “Today, overall, we just competed more than we did there.”In other words, they played as if there was a championship on the line. At least for all but the final three possessions of the first half.After building a 12-point lead and appearing to have taken control of the game, the Tar Heels suffered a letdown that led to seven straight Miami points, The final two came just before the buzzer following a turnover by reserve point guard Seventh Woods, sending Williams off the court in a huff.Once the Hall of Fame coach got to the locker room, he let his players know how unhappy he was while hitting on another of his oft-repeated topics — that the best way to get sent home early from the postseason is a lapse in concentration or effort.”There were a lot of ‘frickin’s’ out there, I guess,” Williams said. “I guess I was just upset with the way we turned it over, giving them the basket and the way we didn’t stay in front of the guy. I got after them a little for about 75 seconds and then I let (assistant coach Steve) Robinson talk so I could think of some positive things.”Whatever Williams said, positive or otherwise, clearly hit home. Because after giving up the first basket of the second half, allowing Miami to close to within 34-31, UNC shifted into another gear.The Tar Heels (27-6) scored the next nine points and took off from there, shooting 53 percent from the floor while allowing the Hurricanes to hit on just nine of its final 30 attempts and outscoring them by 20 points.It was a performance reminiscent of last year’s ACC tournament opener against Pittsburgh, in which UNC used a strong second half performance to catapult itself to a league championship and dominant NCAA performance that ended on the final possession of the national championship game.Though it’s still too early to tell whether Thursday’s game will result in a similarly successful postseason run. But it sure was a good way to start.”This was a glimpse of what we did last year,” Berry said. “We played an OK first half, then we came out for the second half and it was like we flipped a switch. He wanted us to stay up on the ball and box out. He just motivated us and I’m glad we responded like that. Now we need to do that from the jump without him getting on us.”