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North Carolina’s Elite Eight win vs Kentucky: Three things we learned

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Luke Maye’s name will join other Tar Heel legends, but this game was about so much more than his final shot

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Kentucky vs North Carolina Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

By the time you read this, it will be late Monday morning. You may still be hungover, either emotionally or chemically. Maybe both. If you’re like me, you’ve repeatedly replayed key moments from yesterday’s Elite Eight game between Kentucky and North Carolina in your mind. No, I still can’t quite believe what we all witnessed.

While we bask in the glow of another athletic achievement by our favorite collegiate basketball players, lets all take a few minutes and review some key tidbits of information that we learned last night.

Defense Wins (Regional) Championships

Much had been made throughout the season about the lack of focus, intensity, and consistency of the Tar Heels’ defensive execution. There were stretches in the season where you didn’t know which Tar Heel squad would show up. The team that held UVA to 41 points, or the team that watched Duke blow by them on the third day of the ACC Tournament. Lack of quickness on the perimeter and a propensity for the post players to earn large amounts of fouls didn’t ease the minds of most fans.

Those questions seem like they were asked years ago, not the last few weeks. UNC has erased all doubt about just how good they can be when they play with the defensive anger displayed last night.

Kentucky entered the game averaging 85.2 points per game. The Heels held them to 73 points, and if not for some incredibly impressive almost-heroics by Malik Monk, the Cats would've been held below 70. Strong, smart perimeter defense was buoyed by a relentless onslaught of interior pressure. That combination held Kentucky to 41.5% shooting from the field, well below their season average of 47.1%. The Heels’ nine blocks certainly helped those numbers.

Monk only scored 12 points, well below his average of 20.1 points per game. Six of those points came on two tough, highly contested three point attempts in the final minute. De’Aaron Fox only mustered 13 points on 5-14 shooting. No matter how much their coach may have complained in the post-game press conference about foul trouble hampering his players, Monk and Fox still played 30 and 28 minutes.

As Bryan Ives tweeted afterwards, UNC contested 20 of Monk’s and Fox’s 24 shot attempts. They made just seven of those. UNC’s defense was just that good.

Attacking Berry is the Best Berry

Joel Berry has been UNC’s best shooter from behind the arc this season. Of course “best” is a little subjective. Justin Jackson has made the most, though Berry has a slightly higher percentage. Unfortunately, Berry was 0-5 from three on Sunday. He was 4-7 from everywhere else.

All four of his makes came after penetrating down the right side of the lane and guiding the ball over various outstretched defenders’ hands. A driving, aggressive Berry is a beautiful thing. It opens up shooting lanes for his teammates, keeps defenders from putting their heels outside the three point line, provides opportunities for easy offensive rebounds, and can put the opposing team in foul-prone positions. All of those things happened last night.

Yet, more important than any logical tactical basketball reason, when Joel Berry is aggressive, the team follows his lead. He set the tone early by attacking the paint. Every drive was a message, intentional or not, to Fox, Monk, and Bam Adebayo. He was effectively telling them, “We are coming at you all night long. Over and over and over. We are not scared. We are not quitting. We are not losing tonight.”

Most of that initial damage was done before he went down with another bum ankle. It didn’t matter. The message was delivered and the team fed off that aggression.

Jackson was uncharacteristically barking at Monk. Kennedy Meeks did his best Brendan Haywood impression and was credited with four blocks. The Heels made 55.8% of their two-point attempts. Luke Maye dunked...kind of. They out-rebounded Kentucky by 10. Stilman White did his best Kanler Coker impression with a driving reverse lay-up.

When Joel Berry is hitting three pointers, he is very good. When Joel Berry consistently attacks the rim, he is at his best.

So are the Tar Heels.

Roy WIlliams Is Good At Coaching

Maybe this title is a little facetious, but it’s no less true. This game was a clinic in game management, in-game adjustments, and defensive match-ups. Roy Williams pushed every button on his control panel and came out victorious.

By starting the game with Pinson guarding Fox and Jackson on Monk, the Heels could let the hobbled Joel Berry “hide” as he matched up with Isaiah Briscoe. That put the longest UNC perimeter players on Kentucky’s best scorers. If John Calipari truly couldn’t even remember if Pinson played in December, as he alluded to in a pre-game press conference, then he certainly will remember after yesterday.

When foul and injury trouble began piling up, Roy also tried multiple lineup combinations to keep the momentum going. Next thing we knew, Seventh Woods is firing a half-court assist to Tony Bradley, Stilman White is drawing fouls and driving baseline, and Luke Maye is headed to a South Region Most Outstanding Player award. While there were a few scoring droughts, there was never a time that a UNC lineup truly looked outmatched.

Williams’ coaching went further than just a few match-ups and substitutions. The most noticeable move he made was calling a timeout with just over five minutes left. Often lampooned for his refusal to take timeouts, it didn’t go unnoticed by the Tar Heel faithful. Williams later said he simply didn’t like the look on his players’ faces.

The less noticeable move was coming out of that timeout in a 2-3 zone. With North Carolina reeling from another Kentucky scoring run and trailing 64-59, Williams mixed things up. The tactic worked, as UNC went on a 12-0 run and Kentucky went into a scoring drought of their own.

Of course, that wasn’t quite enough to finish it off. During a near-miraculous comeback, Kentucky tied the game at 73, thanks to heroics from Monk. His three with just over seven seconds left stunned Tar Heels everywhere. It just didn’t stun the Heels on the court, though. This time, Williams didn’t call a timeout, and North Carolina executed a full-court play to perfection.

Game. Set. Match. Final Four.

Bring on Oregon.