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UNC Basketball: How Justin Pierce sparked the Heels’ win over Yale

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The grad transfer contributed on 13 points in a 17-2 second-half run.

NCAA Basketball: Yale at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina won their final game of 2019 on Monday night, taking down Yale 70-67. It wasn’t always pretty, but the Bulldogs are a good team, ranked in the top-75 by KenPom. Their four losses are by a combined 17 points and they own a win over Clemson. It was a solid(ish) win by an increasingly depleted Tar Heel roster.

Key to those efforts were Justin Pierce. The graduate transfer finished with 14 points and 7 rebounds, but it was most noticeable during a key stretch in the second half. UNC has struggled to find offense after halftime, and have given up multiple game-defining runs to opponents. They were on their way to letting it happen again after Yale opened the second period on a 7-0 blitz. Leaky Black helped steady the ship and eventually tied the game at 37-37 with 16:36 remaining.

Black’s game tying lay-up started a 17-2 run that gave the Heels just enough breathing room in the closing minutes. Pierce was instrumental to that success on the offensive end. Most importantly, other than scoring 6 of his 14 points in that seven-minute run, was how Pierce influenced the game without the ball. Let’s examine the hows and whys.

Post entry and kick-out

Let’s start small. Brandon Robinson feeds Pierce in the post. Pierce, who lacks a repertoire of post moves, doesn’t have anywhere to go. He’s not helped by the lack of spacing by his teammates, which allow four Yale defenders to camp out in the paint. He kicks it back out.

Just to drive home the point, this was how UNC was arrayed after the post entry. Robinson never relocated. Francis starts floating to the top of the key. Nobody dives to the rim, and Leaky is hanging out at the elbow. Pierce is on an island.

Yes, this is a snapshot of a moment in time. Some of the above is allowed, encouraged, or required at different points in UNC’s system. But spacing and positioning has been a major issue all year long. This is simply an example of how poor spacing can influence UNC’s ability in the post. Moving on.

After he kicks it back out, Pierce moves to the corner. Robinson takes the ball-screen and pulls up from 18-feet with the shot clock winding down. Not a great shot or possession, but it results in points. UNC leads 39-37.

This was Pierce’s first action of the second-half. It gets more exciting.

Rim running and kick-out

Rim running in transition has been absent for long stretches. This play shows why it’s so deadly for UNC. Credit Francis for pitching it ahead, but this is great awareness by Pierce to realize he can’t do anything with the ball and finding B-Rob for the three. None of it happens if Pierce lollygags without the ball.

UNC leads 42-37.

Brooks hook-shot

To set the scene, here’s what the floor looked like at the beginning of the possession. Francis is all way in the corner, but his defender is shading to the block. Brooks’ defender is sagging, creating a narrow passing lane. Yale clearly didn’t respect UNC’s shooting abilities and prioritized limiting UNC’s post game. Black’s defender is hugging him close to the sideline, seemingly unconcerned with Brooks’ ability to drive.

However, note the difference in this spacing compared to the first possession we reviewed. It matters.

Brooks feeds Pierce. This was either a good or dangerous pass, considering the narrow passing lane. Maybe it was both.

Brooks immediately dives to the opposite block. This helps shift the defense and opens up the court. Yale can’t defend the paint like they want to.

Pierce gets it at the mid-post. (Some call this the pinch-post). He kicks back out to Francis, and immediately sets a ball-screen. Francis gets into the lane and finds Brooks. UNC leads 44-37.

Note the importance of spacing around the perimeter. In order:

  • Francis slides up from the corner, forcing his defender to move
  • Robinson directs Pierce to pass to Francis, then goes to screen for Black.
  • Pierce screens for Francis and pops. That opened Francis’ driving lane.
  • Black refused the screen and moved into the lane. Not sure why. It almost closed off Francis’ lane.

Backscreen Lay-up

One the oldest (and most exciting) options in UNC’s offense is the backscreen lob. My high-school team was running this action in 1999. It’s most effective when UNC has high-flying athletes who can catch the alley-oop. Naturally, it has been missing for most of this season. Check it out.

Here are all the things Pierce does well.

  • Receives the pass at the top of the key and looks for Brooks
  • Quickly decides not to enter it to Brooks. Good decision? Bad decision? Pre-determined decision? Hard to say, but it wasn’t “wrong”.
  • Quick reversal to Brandon Robinson
  • Waits for the screen from K.J. Smith so he can actually gain separation from his defender

Brandon Robinson does the rest and Pierce finishes the easy lay-up. The keys here were Pierce’s quick decision-making and purposeful movements, but note how spread out the rest of the Heels are. Great spacing around the perimeter was important. Again. It made the screen, separation, and passing lanes possible.

Heels lead 46-37

Brooks lay-up

This play could be an example of a questionable post entry (or, at least a questionable decision by Brooks). Robinson feeds Brooks n the mid-post. He’s too far away to make a post move, but not quite far enough from the basket to face up.

Luckily, Piece saves this possession. When he recognizes Brooks is going to shoot, he gets inside position. Brooks gets the put back, but it was Pierce who kept the play alive and knocked the ball to the junior big man.

UNC leads 48-37

Harris to Pierce lay-up

This play is another example of the importance of running to the rim in UNC’s offense. Francis pitches ahead to Anthony Harris, who finds a streaking Pierce. Pretty simple.

UNC leads 50-39. (Yale hit two free throws between these UNC buckets)

Pierce put-back

Pierce sets the screen, and immediately rolls to the hoop for inside positioning. He boxes out, gets the rebound, and gives UNC a 52-39 lead. Credit to him for getting to the rim even though he knew he wasn’t an option off the screen.

Conclusion

This stretch gave UNC a 13 point lead and temporarily put a stop to those odd second-half offensive droughts. There were positive examples from almost every Tar Heel, but Pierce stood out the most. Whether screening, moving, passing, or shooting, he was all over the court.

Is he starting to “get it” or was this another example of a former CAA player excelling against familiar competition levels? Probably a little bit of both, but it’s an encouraging step.

Also encouraging was the overall ball movement and spacing. UNC just does not have the athletes to make individual plays or exploit one-on-one mismatches. Making contact on screens, timing, spacing, and movement (or lack thereof) become more noticeable when those individual skills are lacking. Think of UNC as needing top-tier mid-major execution with good-but-not-great high-major talent.

UNC can win plenty of games with the talent they have, but their margin for error is smaller than what fans are used to. There are bigger (fixable) issues than just “missing shots”. Monday’s game provided a blueprint as to what that may look like in the coming weeks.