Everybody okay? Heartbeats back to normal? Pretending it was easy all along and moving on to the next game?
Well... hold on a bit for that last one. Each game is a learning experience, after all, and there are some takeaways to be had here. Let’s go through them real quick before looking ahead to Washington.
1. This team is capable of responding and adjusting out of the halftime break
Following 20 minutes of frankly unacceptable play on both ends of the floor, UNC went into the locker room down to the 16th-seeded Iona Gaels, 38-33. UNC’s perimeter defense on ball screens was lacking and had led to an unreasonably hot start from behind the arc, they hadn’t figured out how to solve Iona’s matchup zone, leading to very few open attempts from three and lackadaisical effort from close (with the exception of Nassir Little), and they weren’t putting much pressure on the ball at all. As soon as the horn started for the second half, we saw a new team. Cameron Johnson got free for an open corner 3 within 8 seconds, then, after a couple of traded baskets, Luke Maye missed a layup and crashed the glass to tip in his own miss. A Cam Johnson driving layup later after a miss on a heavily contested 3, UNC had already displayed fixes to everything they hadn’t been doing right in the first half and took a lead they wouldn’t relinquish for the remaining 18 minutes. I don’t know what Roy Williams said to this team in the interim, though he did say coming out of the tunnel that his team hadn’t been playing with “passion,” especially on D, but throughout the rest of the half, UNC’s game looked a lot more controlled by UNC. The defense forced a lot of turnovers, contested jump shots, and absolutely controlled the paint area, to the tune of 55 points in the second half compared to 35 for the Gaels. This team already showed us plenty of times this season that it had the cojones to come back after being punched in the mouth early, but this wasn’t just a tightening up, it was a wholesale change in play. And it went just about seamlessly. And if more teams are willing to do what Iona did and completely change their basketball philosophies to throw this team off, that ability bodes really well for the rest of this postseason.
2. This team needs to move the ball
It certainly felt in the moment, while the Tar Heels were getting rained on to the tune of 10/21 from behind the arc, that defense, especially perimeter defense, was chief among UNC’s problems. Looking back, though, particularly after Iona’s fairly predictable regression to 5/20 from deep in the second half, I think offense may have been the phase that was more problematic. All season long, UNC has been one of the best passing teams in the country, ranking 10th in the country in percentage of field goals that are assisted before tonight at a healthy 61.3%. In the first half, where nobody could get any offense going? UNC assisted on just 3 of 13 baskets (that’s 23%, if you need a comparison). Coby White opened the scoring with an off-the-bounce 3, and Nassir Little was able to get what he wanted for the most part near the rim, but after he went out for the half with two fouls, the offense looked stagnant and lethargic. This team doesn’t really have consistent on-the-bounce or back-to-the-basket shot creation, and that’s been fine with the high level of court vision and chemistry they’ve displayed throughout this season. But those things need to be engaged 40 minutes a game. Again, this was fixed in the second half: The Heels assisted on 13 of 22 made baskets for a much better 59% rate. Coby White and Cameron Johnson finished with 4 assists, and Kenny Williams chipped in 3, as the offense started to get whatever it wanted due to crisp ball movement. It’s clear that if this team wants to make a run, it will be as a team.
3. Survive. And. Advance.
Roy Williams is now 29-0 in the first round. Just 3 years ago, a game FGCU squad held on to be just down 1 at halftime before Marcus Paige and Co. stormed back to a final margin of 83-67. That tournament proceeded to go pretty well, if ending heartbreakingly, for UNC. Just like we did then, we know how good this team is. A few early-tournament jitters don’t mean anything. Let’s rock. Bring on Washington. Go Heels.