That was fun! After more than a week off for exams and to compensate for a packed November, UNC absolutely poured it on against one of the best teams in the country, the Gonzaga Bulldogs. We’ve seen several times this season what this team can do when it gets hot, but it’s something else seeing it against a team expected to be a Final Four contender after the Heels had dropped their first two contests against the nation’s top teams. So what can we take away from this game?
The Heels have found a little toughness
A lot of people (rightly) took issue with the fact that one big Michigan run early in the game effectively took the Heels out of that matchup with more than a full half to go. It didn’t look like UNC was capable of responding to being punched in the mouth, and that is a serious problem. Last night, we saw a hint of that changing. A (comparatively) fast start always helps, as after a slow 5-and-a-half-minute back-and-forth, UNC went on a 14-3 run to take a 24-12 lead with 10 minutes to go in the first half and never trailed again. But Gonzaga stayed in it, through a combination of UNC turnovers and being the best offensive team in the country, and made several mini-runs that cut what was usually a double-digit lead to 8 or 9. But every time it got to that point, UNC didn’t let the Zags score again until the lead was back in double digits. Cameron Johnson, Kenny Williams, and Seventh Woods all did it with three-pointers (Johnson more than once), Luke Maye did it with 3 free throws on a fouled 3-pointer and again with a baseline jumper, and when the shots weren’t falling, the Heels tightened up on defense. UNC didn’t score from about 7 minutes into the 2nd half, with the lead at 10, until about 9:30 in. In that time, they only let Gonzaga score once, and that was at the tail end of that period. In response, Woods hit a 3 to get the lead back to 11, and the lid came off the basket. After a little back-and-forth with the margin fluctuating between 9 and 11, Johnson hit another 3 to get his team back up 12 and the Heels never looked back. It’s not the kind of toughness everyone likes to rave about after a come-from-behind win, but the ability to withstand threats like that throughout the game and never really be in danger was a step towards the kind of tenacity you need to win a title.
The point guards’ roles are starting to become clear
It’s been obvious to everybody watching UNC basketball to this point that the two primary point guards, Coby White and Seventh Woods, have different, nearly opposite, strengths and weaknesses. White is an alpha guard with a score-first mentality and a deadly jumper but a loose handle, and who sometimes isn’t on the same page as his teammates, and Woods is a facilitator who takes care of the ball and makes the right plays but doesn’t do a ton of scoring. Even though they kind of switched bodies last night, with White recording 6 assists and Woods hitting 6/9 from the floor and both of his long balls, we still caught glimpses of what they can do for the team in a macro sense.
Woods in particular showed an aptitude for responding to defensive changes on the Gonzaga side. When the Zags switched to a zone near the end of the first half to try and stymie the UNC offense, it looked like it was working. The Heels missed a couple of shots and turned it over, and Mark Few’s side cut the lead down to 8 and it looked like we, the UNC fans, were going to be unnecessarily sweating going into halftime. Enter Seventh Woods, who slices up the zone with a layup, finds a soft spot for a midrange jumper, and then carves it up again for a floater as the half expires on a personal 6-0 run to get the lead back to 14 as the Heels went into the locker room. Later, when Gonzaga was trapping at 3⁄4 court to try and get some cheap buckets, it was working again, forcing several turnovers that led to uncontested baskets, cutting the lead to 11. Enter Woods again, who was able to find the right man under pressure and lead the Heels to actual offensive possessions, which, as they did all game, usually had good results.
On the flip side of the equation, White seemed to be the go-to guy in the few moments when UNC’s offense was struggling against Gonzaga’s regular man-to-man defense. There were several stretches when, just as he has all season, he was the only Heel capable of providing a scoring spark when it was needed. Woods was the equilibrator, bringing the Heels back to normal when something changed on the Gonzaga side, but White is much more of a scoring catalyst. It’s another way in which the two seem to be opposites, but as displayed in this game, they’re also very good complementary attributes. I think we’re going to see more of that synergy as the season goes on.
This team is really, really good on the glass
In typically under-the-radar excellent fashion, this UNC team is third in the country in total rebounding percentage, 8th in offensive rebounding percentage, and 23rd in defensive rebounding (don’t ask me how that adds up). This showed up big-time against the Zags, as UNC held a 42-21 rebounding advantage and a 14-5 offensive rebounding advantage. UNC rebounded 47% of their own misses and turned those 14 boards into 27 points, limited Gonzaga to nothing off their own second-chance opportunities. When Gonzaga was able to beat UNC at the other usual facets of UNC’s game, with a 29-15 advantage in points off turnovers and a (related) 24-9 advantage in fast-break points, UNC made up those margins and more with second-chance opportunities to level the playing field and then outshoot them from there, as they’ve done in their best performances all season. Like I keep saying, this is an absolutely ridiculous offensive team. Luke Maye had his struggles this game (the box score doesn’t really show it), but where he absolutely didn’t struggle was on the boards, as he pulled down 16 rebounds, 13 on the defensive end. He and Garrison Brooks (9) out-rebounded Gonzaga by themselves. And when you’re only playing with 75% of your offensive possessions because team chemistry isn’t all the way there yet, extra possessions are a necessary equalizer. Once that chemistry gets figured out, this team might just figure to be overwhelming. With finals over and a week of practice before the CBS Sports Classic, Saturday’s game against Kentucky might just show us what that can look like.