UNC finds its fight vs. Spartans

North Carolina guard Cormac Ryan (3) moves the ball against Michigan State guard Jaden Akins (3) during the second half of a second-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 23, 2024, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

CHARLOTTE–North Carolina was in trouble early against 9-seed Michigan State. The Tar Heels fell behind early and, just over 10 minutes into the game, the top seed in the West Region trailed by 12 points.

The Spartans had made nine of their first 14 shots and gone to the free throw line six times. UNC, meanwhile, had made just six of their first 16 shots, taking half of them from beyond three-point range.

“They punched first,” said UNC head coach Hubert Davis. “Their physicality, their will, their want to, the first ten minutes of the game just overwhelmed us. They were catching the ball wherever they wanted to, close to the basket on the block. They were getting layups, second-chance opportunities. Defensively they were pushing us off our screens, our spots. They were just playing better than us.”

Davis didn’t have any advice for them at the time, however.

“We came into the huddle and said, ‘Look, we can’t talk about any basketball stuff until we join the fight,’’ Davis said. “Once that started, the level of play in terms of the energy and effort, the attention to detail rose. Then that’s when things started to change.”

The Tar Heels stepped into the ring, and by the time the final bell sounded, UNC had advanced to the Sweet 16, with an 85-69 win.

“We started to compete,” Davis said.  “I just know that Michigan State came out really aggressive on both ends of the floor, and from a physical standpoint, we didn’t match or surpass it. Once that changed, everything else changed.”

Michigan State made just three of their next 11 shots in the first half and went to the line just twice more before halftime. Carolina finished the half on a 23-3 run to pull in front by nine points. Another run midway through the second half took away any remaining uncertainty about the result.

“I felt like defensively we were getting over screens,” Davis said. “We were talking on defense, we’re fighting and fronting the post, we’re boxing out, we’re rebounding, we’re defending without fouling. I think the change came on both ends, not just offensively, but defensively as well.”

RJ Davis, who mimes boxing with a teammate as part of his pregame introduction ritual, led the Tar Heels with 20 points. Armando Bacot went to the line 10 times and finished with 18 points. The Heels also got defensive efforts off the bench from Seth Trimble and Paxson Wojcik.

“hat really changed for us defensively was Paxson coming in,” Bacot said. “I thought he really made a huge impact on us, and he really got us going.”

“Seth is the best defender in the ACC and one of the best defenders in the country,” RJ Davis said of Trimble. “I know there was a couple times where, because we have Tyson Walker out there. Seth had the challenge to go out there and guard him. I think he did a great of making it hard for him, being physical on the catch, getting over screens. I don’t know how many blocks he had, two blocks? Those blocks he had got us going and kind of saved us in the second half.”

It was a little late, but all it took was for UNC to arrive at the fight.

“We always talk about how do you react and how do you respond?” Coach Davis said. “And these guys, the whole team reacted and responded the right way after going down.”