Look, it’s been a bed February for UNC. The Tar Heels were 1-5 in the month before last night’s game, and they were playing a team that had nothing to lose in Notre Dame. UNC shot poorly, had arguably the worst first half for them in the modern era of college basketball, and almost lost to a team that has a total of two wins in the conference.
Despite all of this, they found a way to come away with a victory. They took a halftime deficit, turned it around, and held it at the end. That’s...progress.
Believe it or not, last night’s game is instructive for the Tar Heels in multiple ways, and at least offers a small ray of hope as there are just three games left in the regular season. Let’s see what they are.
You don’t have to try to hit a three
We’ve all seen it by now, when an opponent just throws everyone they have at Armando Bacot, it leaves other players open at the top of the arc. They try a shot, they miss the shot, and because it’s a long rebound the other team is able to use that to run the ball down to the other end.
What if, and stay with me here, you use that space for something other than a three-point shot?
The Tar Heels shot 2-23 from three last night, with Caleb Love being the only one able to knock anything down from deep. When the rest of the squad is 0-17, though, maybe you ought to think of other ways to score. In the second half, things turned when Carolina started using the space that Notre Dame gave them on the floor for other things — Pete Nance had room to feather some amazing passes to Bacot down low, RJ Davis was able to drive toward the basket, as was Leaky Black and the aforementioned Nance.
After a half that saw them shoot 18.5% overall, they jumped up and shot a much better 42.9% in the second, even with all the misses from three. They also had eight assists in the second half after none in the first, and after only seven offensive rebounds in the first half, they had sixteen in the second. Why? Closer shots. Misses in the paint aren’t going to travel as far, and as the defense turns to try to get the ball instead of guarding Bacot, Bacot has room to work. He either can get the board himself, or others are free to move in and grab them.
The Tar Heels may have finally had the light click on with how they can make teams pay for doubling and tripling Bacot. Open guys are going have a ton of room to move the ball closer and at the very least, will force the defense to scramble. That opens up a ton of options and could be the key to saving their season.
This win is better than you may think
Look, I fell into the same trap a lot of folks, including Vegas, did when they saw Notre Dame was 2-14 in the ACC coming into the game. The first half didn’t exactly do them any favors, either, but it wasn’t until the graphic came up late in the game that I saw just how unfortunate the Irish had been.
Earlier in the year they had lost by only three at NC State, two to Georgia Tech, six to Virginia Tech, four at Duke, and just two at UVA. This was a team that hadn’t given up, and even in a down year, beating North Carolina on your home floor can go a long way to salvage your season. They also have a candidate for ACC Freshman of the Year in JJ Starling. Believe it or not, they actually started 6-1 and beat Michigan State in the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. Mike Brey is a good coach and some school will snap him up quickly either this season or next, depending on when he wants to get back on the sideline.
So Notre Dame, while bad this season, has been a handful in a lot of their games. It was at least a little heartening to see Carolina come out of the locker room in the second half and play inspired basketball to turn their eight point deficit around pretty quickly. Of course, you have to wonder why they couldn’t have started that way. Still, there have been a lot of times we’ve seen this Carolina team fold down the stretch, and in this one they stood strong, and did what they needed to in order to take home the win. After seeing them fail to do that way too many times this month, it was good to see they at least could do that.
Saturday’s game is not going to be fun
Carolina’s offense is awful right now and UVA’s hasn’t been much better. Combine that with UVA’s propensity to limit possessions and we could be in for a rock fight that hasn’t been since the days of The Flintsones.
Seriously, if Carolina wasn’t able to get out of the 20’s against this Notre Dame squad, it may not get out of the 20’s in the whole game on Saturday.
UVA, meanwhile, is coming in with the wheels starting to wobble for them. I mentioned their game before last night’s was a squeaker over these Irish, before that they barely pulled off a win against Louisville. Plus, they had lucky no-call against Duke that saw them win in overtime. It felt like last night’s loss to Boston College had been building for a bit, but it was a game that saw them shoot only 32% for the entire game, and 19% from three, and they only mustered 48 points overall.
This is all a way of saying to plan accordingly. Caffeinate yourself, put tape in your eyes to keep them open, and if you’re going to be at the Smith Center don’t let UVA’s style rock you to sleep. It is the biggest game of the season, their chance at the best victory they can have, and it’ll be a lot different than the first one where Armando Bacot was hurt within the first minute.
Hopefully BC put some things on tape that Carolina can take advantage of. If so, the Tar Heels will live to fight another day.