UNC shook off a slow start to pull away from Pitt for a 17 point win in the ACC Quarterfinals. Here is what we learned.
Sure there was plenty of complaining about how UNC started the game. Pitt jumped out to an 8-0 lead then bounced back from down 20-16 to eventually go up 35-29. Neither Kennedy Meeks or Brice Johnson played well early. Justin Jackson was a little timid didn't drive the ball. When he did he had his shot blocked. It was an uneven effort early on on both ends of the floor. Pitt showed fairly early that they are a team that can hit shots, even when defended.
Over the final three minutes of the first half UNC did two things to turn a six point deficit into a four point halftime lead. One was tighten up the defense which held Pitt scoreless over the balance of the half after the Panthers took a six point lead. The second was scoring on five straight possessions to close the half on a 10-0 run.
The player in the middle of that run was Theo Pinson who came off the bench and provided UNC with a spark. Pinson was on the court for Pitt's final five offensive possessions which all came up empty. On the other end, Pinson assisted on three of UNC's five buckets in the 10-0. After a rough start to the ACC season, Pinson has become a player who "makes things happen" when he's in the game. Against Duke it was a couple of tip-ins. Today it was being a facilitator and defender.
Pitt wasn't done after that and made it a game for another ten minutes before UNC dropped an 11-0 run to put the Tar Heels ahead by double digits for good. Again the defense tightened up with Pitt coming away empty on five trips to the offensive end while a balanced UNC attack provided the points to effectively put the game away.
Defense good when it had to be
Today's game was a reminder that Pittsburgh is a solid offensive team. At one point during the season they were sporting much higher offensive efficiency. They have players who can hit shots from all over the court and can be a match-up nightmare at times. Mix that in with top twenty offensive rebounding and this is a team that can be tough to defend or finish defensive possessions against.
For huge swaths of the game, Pitt went toe-to-toe with UNC offensively. The Tar Heels were rolling against a mediocre defensive team but had trouble for stretches at a time getting consistent stops. With the offense humming, UNC didn't need a tip to buzzer defensive masterpiece just enough defense to seize control at key moments. Those defensive stands came at the end of the half when UNC used a 10-0 run to regain the lead while holding Pitt scores over the final 3:43. The other came midway through the half when UNC turned a two point edge into a 13 point advantage. That stretch saw UNC get five straight stops and complement those stops with production on the offensive end.
This was the type of performance you expect from a #1 seed. Pitt isn't chopped liver. They are a potential NCAA Tournament team that won 21 games. Putting together a top level offensive game and squeezing the Panthers defensively at just the right times was more than enough to coast into the semifinals.
Berry and Johnson Doing Work
At this point Marcus Paige has receded to just being a role player who provides solid defense and leadership on the court. The primary inside-out duo at this stage is clearly Joel Berry and Brice Johnson. Both showed up big today combining for 39 of UNC's 88 points. Berry scored 13 in the first half on a variety of outside shots and drives to the basket. Johnson had eight points on his way to his 20th double-double of the season.
To put Johnson's season so far into perspective, he is just three double-doubles short of breaking the all-time UNC record in a season held by Billy Cunningham in 1963-64. With one more he ties both John Henson and Antawn Jamison for second on that list. Not bad for a player that The Sporting News Mike Decourcy said this about in response to complaints Johnson was only third team All-America by Decourcy's publication.
If 20 double-doubles in 32 games and an offensive rating of 125.0 isn't consistently great we might need a new word.
It is not clear if Berry is playing with a chip on his shoulder about not even being nominated by UNC for All-ACC but he certainly looked like he belonged on at least the third team. He carried UNC in the first half and was a part of the run that put UNC ahead at the half.
As long as UNC gets consistent productions from Berry and Johnson with the rest complementing them, UNC's offense will continue to roll like it did today.