This is a slightly unusual game in that UNC played extremely well for about 32 minutes taking a 12 point lead at the break and extending it to as much as 18 with 10:41 left in the game. Then matters got dicey down the stretch with UNC turning the ball over too much against extended Buckeye pressure and fouling Ohio State on the defensive end. The result was a lead that dwindled from 18 to seven with 1:24 left before the Heels finally closed the door for an 82-74 win.
As much as the final eight minutes are going to color how people perceive this game, there was plenty of good on UNC's part. The Tar Heels were facing a zone defense which has historically troubled the Tar Heels and had the potential to do so here thanks to the lack of three point shooting on UNC's part. The lack of perimeter shooting wasn't an issue as the Tar Heels dissected the zone effectively in the first half.
Freshman forward Justin Jackson set the tone for UNC with his activity in the game's early minutes. Jackson scored five quick points and a hustle play to grab an offensive rebound that led to a Brice Johnson dunk. Marcus Paige got off to one his better starts of the season with a pair of made threes in the first half and nine points to lead the Tar Heels. The key to breaking the zone was a great deal of patience and excellent passing on UNC's part. The Tar Heels assisted on 14 of 17 made field goals and shot 52% in the first half to take a 43-31 lead. Johnson was locked in early and had eight at the break with four other Tar Heels chipping in five apiece.. Ohio State had a foot in the door thanks to 6-12 shooting from three. Outside of that, the Buckeyes shot poorly and had few answers for UNC on the defensive end.
The second half proceeded in much the same fashion with the Heels continuing to get effective looks against the zone defense and Ohio State unable to produce offensively. The Tar Heel lead ballooned to 18 midway through the period and was still 16 after Joel James hit a layup with 8:43 left.
Then the Heels really started to stumble despite the fact Ohio State was not hitting shots on the offensive end. During the final nine minutes of the game, with UNC's lead slowly disappearing, the Buckeyes did not make a field goal for over seven minutes. However that stretch saw the Tar Heels foul and commit turnovers at an alarming rate while experiencing some disjointed offensive moments. Ohio State's field goal drought was more than compensated by 12 straight makes at the free throw line by the Buckeyes.
Even with Ohio State chipping away at the Tar Heel lead, UNC had ample opportunity to salt the game away. Paige, who played well at times, missed an open layup with 2:02 left and the Heels up eight. What followed was a horrendous stretch of free throw shooting reminiscent of last season. At one point the Heels missed 9 of 12 free throws. Paige missed 3 of 4, Justin Jackson missed four straight including airballing one and Meeks missed a pair. The only saving grace for UNC was Ohio State's inability to capitalize as the Buckeyes took several contested and wild threes in hopes of cutting into the lead. Nate Britt broke the drought with a pair of free throws with 26 seconds left and Paige closed out the game making his final two to salt the game away.
Johnson led the Tar Heels with 18 points and 11 rebounds. The junior big man went 8-9 from the floor hitting a variety of shots from dunks to face up baseline jumpers. Meeks missed a double-double by two points but pulled down 13 rebounds to go with two blocks and two steals. Paige ended up with 16 and while this was a better performance he was still just 2-8 from three, 4-12 overall and missed three free throws plus had four turnovers.
The stat line of the game goes to J.P. Tokoto with 8 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists and two steals. After two games where Tokoto turned the ball over 12 times, the junior wing forward had just two miscues. Justin Jackson had a solid game despite the free throw troubles with 11 points, four rebounds and five assists. And Joel Berry is starting to pique people's attention. Berry has looked more comfortable over the past three games. His line today of 5 points, 4 assists and 0 turnovers plus a made three is a welcome addition as is Joel James scoring eight points.
Overall, UNC did a great job defensively on Ohio State holding the Buckeyes to 35% shooting and 34% from three for a team shooting well over 40% coming in. The effectiveness of UNC's offense against a zone is certainly encouraging however the issues dealing with Ohio State's extended pressure is a cause for concern. The Heels didn't finish this game well which shouldn't negate the previous 32 minutes. At the same time, it is an area UNC needs to improve on going forward.