On Saturday, with 3:43 remaining in the first half, the Tar Heels faced their largest deficit of the tournament. Trailing 30-22, thanks to back-to-back Dylan Ennis three-pointers, the under-four media timeout came at just the right moment. North Carolina, who has had some trouble closing out first halves throughout the season, were flirting with disaster.
Instead, coming out of the timeout, the Heels embarked on a 17-6 run. After a Kennedy Meeks layup (surprise!) gave UNC a 37-36 lead, North Carolina did not trail for the rest of the game. They entered the half with a 39-36 lead, which seemed almost impossible just minutes before. Below, we examine the final 3:43 and break down that Tar Heel scoring spurt.
3:43- Coming out of the media time-out, Joel Berry knocks down two free throws. Oregon leads, 30-24
3:39: UNC came out of the timeout in a run-n-jump half court defense. They trapped Oregon PG Payton Pritchard in the corner as soon as he crossed mid-court. Joel Berry stole the ball and was promptly fouled. Credit Roy Williams with another understated (if not wildly predictable) coaching maneuver.
3:18: This is where the offensive comeback truly begins. Isaiah Hicks sets a ball screen for Justin Jackson. Hicks’ defender, Jordan Bell, stays flat on the screen (highlighted below) and Jackson is able to beat his defender, Ennis, to the left side of the paint.
As Jackson drives to the left, Bell continues to retreat in order to deny the post pass to Hicks. Kavell Bigby-Williams is late to challenge Jackson because he’s concerned about Berry in the corner.
As you can see in the picture below, Bigby-Williams never stepped up to stop Jackson, instead opting to just contest the shot by jumping in place. This was a perfect example of how to attack the Ducks’. It was not the last time this happened. Jackson made the floater, and Oregon held a 30-26 lead.
3:07: Foul on Joel Berry. Tyler Dorsey makes two free-throws. Oregon leads 32-26
2:56: On UNC’s next offensive possession, a variation of the previous play is put into action. In this case, Jackson clears across the free-throw line, drawing his defender away. Nate Britt catches his defender, Tyler Dorsey, wrong-footed and drives left.
This time Bigby-Williams steps forward, Meeks started to retreat to the left block to give Britt space and options as he attacked. In response, Jordan Bell moved across the lane in an effort to help Bigby-Williams and either defend Meeks or prepare to block a shot attempt by Britt.
This leaves Hicks wide open on the right block. Britt finds him for an emphatic dunk. In fact, the pass caught Bell so far out of position, he somehow ended up underneath the basket as he attempted to get back to Hicks. Instead he got caught in the middle of the paint. Oregon leads 32-28
2:38-2:32: Oregon’s Jordan Bell turns it over, and Hicks gets credit for the steal. This led to a fast break where Britt found Jackson in transition, and Jackson was promptly...um...awarded two free throws on what was called a foul. Whatever. We’ll take it. Jackson drains the free throws. Oregon leads 32-30.
2:16: Oregon’s Dillon Brooks hits a jumper. Oregon leads 34-30.
1:56: Justin Jackson continues the Carolina aggression and attacks the baseline. He attempts one of his patented floaters and it finds nothing but air. Kennedy Meeks, of course, is there to clean up the miss. Oregon leads 34-32.
1:50: Nate Britt fouls Tyler Dorsey. Dorsey makes both free throws. Oregon leads 36-32. Oregon doesn’t score again.
1:33: The recent possessions have forced the Ducks to pack the paint. Multiple drives toward the paint have loosened up their perimeter defense. Hicks receives the high-post entry from Justin Jackson, and promptly squares up to the basket. Both Bell and Bigby-Williams are deep in the paint.
Hicks sees the opening and instantly dribbles towards the middle of the lane. Both Bigby-Williams and Dorsey (who was guarding Britt) jump hard to stop the ball. Hicks stays under control, picks up his dribble, and finds a stationary Britt waiting for the pass. Britt drained the three. Oregon leads 36-35.
1:22-1:13: Dorsey hesitates and then forces a poor shot from the left corner. Britt stayed on his feet, kept his hands up, and challenged the shot. He then corralled the rebound and pushed the ball up court.
The Heels get down court so fast that Bell and Ennis have a miscommunication on defense. Bell (who should be on Meeks) can be seen pointing at Berry and provides token defense as Ennis struggles to get to the perimeter. A ball screen by Hicks gives Britt an opening in the top of the lane.
Britt uses the screen and gets to the top of the key. Bell never fully recovers back to Meeks.
Oregon’s Brooks is late to help due to his defensive assignment on Jackson. Casey Benson is late to stop the ball, thanks to Hicks’ screen. This allows Britt to gets all the way inside the paint before he slips the assist to Meeks. UNC leads 37-36. They would never trail again.
1:11 Oregon calls a timeout. Stilman White enters the game.
1:03: Jordan Bell turns the ball over. Stilman White is on the court. Do the math.
00:32: Jackson gets the ball near the top of the key. Hicks seals his defender, preparing for the entry pass. This also gives Jackson a free path to the short corner, as Brooks is caught off-balance in poor defensive position.
Jackson drives hard to the right and Bell is hesitant to contest as Hicks slips up and back into the lane. Bell never completely leaves Hicks and leaves Jackson plenty of real estate.
Jackson sees the hesitation and lets his floater fly. As the ball leaves his hand, you can see neither Brooks nor Bell leave their feet to contest the shot. Hicks is also wide open. UNC leads 39-36.
0:32-0:02: Oregon has one last possession. Tyler Dorsey turns it over as he attempts to find a teammate along the baseline. He has to pass it over Stilman White in order to complete the play. Dorsey throws it out of bounds instead. That’s two defensive possessions for White. Those possessions resulted in two turnovers for Oregon. Do what you will with that information.
The final 3:43 resulted in points for North Carolina on eight straight possessions. The ninth possession was Justin Jackson’s buzzer-beating three-point attempt. I think we can all agree to let that one slide.
While Nate Britt rightfully received most of the praise and attention for that stretch, the entire team deserves credit. The entire mindset on the court changed to one of attacking and aggression, and it never left until the final five minutes….which is a topic for another day.
Those eight possessions resulted in 17 points. Only three of those points came from behind the arc. The rest of the points either came from shots that were 10 feet or closer OR were from free throws that resulted from attacking the rim. The aggressiveness put Oregon back on their heels. They were constantly in defensive purgatory as they tried to pick the correct defensive position.
The Heels’ pace of play and attacking prevented the Duck defense from getting into a rhythm after the final media timeout. That frustration clearly was a distraction on the offensive end as well.
There’s an old saying in coaching that the most important parts of a game are the final five minutes of the first half, and the first five minutes of the second half. I’m not one to agree or disagree since every game is different. However, there is no doubt that the final 3:43 of Saturday’s game certainly saved UNC’s title hopes.