Tar Heels get defensive in rolling of Green Wave

UNC answered coach Roy Williams' challenge by building a big early lead and coasting to a 97-73 rout of Tulane

Kenny Williams goes to the floor to beat Tulane's Colin Slater and Jordan Cornish for a loose ball in Sunday's UNC win (Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports)

CHAPEL HILL — Roy Williams put an emphasis on defense before Sunday’s game against Tulane.

Afterward, the emphasis was still on defense, even on an afternoon in which his North Carolina basketball team shot a season-best 65.5 percent from the floor and made nearly half its 3-point attempts in a 97-73 thumping of Tulane.

“We always cut out (video) clips from every game and show them the next day and we’ve gone two games in a row where there is not one single defensive possession,” Williams said after the Tar Heels improved to 7-1. “That’s the first time I can ever remember anything like that. So I challenged them yesterday and even today at pregame about ‘let’s do what we’re supposed to do defensively.’”

It’s a message his players clearly heeded, especially during a first half in which they limited the Green Wave to 29 points while blocking eight shots on the way to building an insurmountable 23-point lead.

Williams called the opening 20 minutes “maybe our best defensive half of the year.”

Although the concentration level waned a little as the game got out of hand in the second half, the usually hard-to-please coach had little about which to be unhappy as his team produced a winning finish to a grueling stretch of seven games in 14 days in four different arenas across three time zones.

“Oh man, that was a fun game,” junior guard Kenny Williams said afterward. “We were pretty locked in from the beginning. Coach challenged us a little bit to play hard on the defensive end and I think that’s what we came out with, a little more defensive intensity.”

As is often the case, that effort on defense carried over to offense.

While UNC held Tulane to only two baskets on its first dozen possessions, on the other side of the court it converted its first seven field goal attempts and nine of its first 10 in bursting out to a 21-4 lead after only seven minutes of play. The Green Wave (6-2) made just 11 of 36 shots in the first half and was limited to 37.7 percent shooting for the game.

While Kenny Williams was the tone-setter on the defensive end, it was Theo Pinson that got the Tar Heels’ offense revved up and running with an emphatic dunk for the game’s first basket. His most meaningful play, however, came a few minutes later when after thinking about taking a 3-pointer, the senior wing thought better of it and decided to attack the basket instead.

It was a smart idea — partially because Pinson has made only two of his 20 3-point attempts this season, but moreso because his coach told him to stop firing up threes and start taking higher percentage shots.

“He just said do what you do best and that’s going to the basket,” Pinson said. “As you see, when I go to the basket, most of the time good things happen. People get wide open shots, so I’m going to keep doing what I do best.”

Pinson finished with nine points, making four of his six shots — all two-pointers — while contributing four rebounds and tying for the team lead with four assists.

According to point guard Joel Berry, who finished with 13 points and three assists, the Tar Heels’ offense flows much better and gets more people involved when Pinson puts the ball on the floor and penetrates than it does when he stays on the perimeter and settles for jump shots.

“He’s a great playmaker,” Berry said. “When he can get all the way to the rim and make a layup, that makes it even better. But with him being aggressive, being the Theo we know he is, that just makes our team a lot better because the defense sags and it opens up the outside. What he did today, that’s the Theo we need each and every game.”

While Pinson did a lot of the little things that led to baskets, Luke Maye was once again the man that did most of the heavy lifting in the scoring column.

The junior forward recorded his fifth double-double in nine games, hitting for 22 points on 8 of 12 shooting to go with 10 rebounds, four assists and four blocked shots.

Maye’s four blocked shots were a career high, giving him a personal best in at least one statistical category in each of the last three games. His 11 field goals against Michigan last Wednesday were his most ever, as were his 17 rebounds against Davidson on Friday.

When jokingly asked what career high he would set as his goal next Wednesday, when the Tar Heels take on Western Carolina, he barely hesitated before coming up with a thoughtful answer.

“I’m going to try to get a career high in made free throws,” he said, noting that he’s making only 58 percent from the line after going 6 for 9 on Sunday. “I can’t miss three.”

Maye’s free throw shooting has been the only kink in his game so far this season. Not that he’s ready to take credit for his unexpected success.

“My teammates just keep putting me in good situations,” he said. “And I’m just going to keep trying to make good plays for my team.”