First of all, that was a tremendous road win over a very good Clemson team (ranked No. 21 in the Pomeroy rankings entering the game). I think they’ll stick around the top 30 of the power rankings all season. It was very reminiscent of the three-game Carolina vs. Clemson series in 2008, featuring a 36-3 UNC team and an Oliver Purnell-led Tiger squad that finished the season No. 16 in KenPom. The Heels needed overtime in Littlejohn to beat Clemson 90-88 in Game 1, as this memorable Wayne Ellington dagger won it in the final second.
In Game 2, a Lawson-less Carolina (led by senior Quentin Thomas, who made huge plays at the end of regulation and the first OT) would need two overtimes and a signature Tyler Hansbrough performance (39 points on 11-16 from the field and 17-19 from the line, plus 13 boards and 3 steals) to preserve its home-court winning streak against the Tigers, 103-93. Finally, UNC capped off the hard-earned sweep of Clemson with an 86-81 victory in the ACC Tournament championship game (after the Tigers knocked off Duke on Semifinal Saturday).
End-of-Regulation Offensive Execution
So, despite this being a huge road win against a Tournament-caliber opponent, the Heels’ late-game execution left a lot to be desired last night. After taking a 75-67 lead with 5:16 left in regulation (when Joel Berry blew by a bigger Donte Grantham to create an easy lay-up for Kennedy Meeks with 3 seconds left on the shot clock), UNC would only score two points on its final 10 possessions. Clemson ended the game on a 10-2 run to force overtime. Let’s review those last 10 offensive trips in greater detail:
- UNC ran an iso set for Justin Jackson (playing small-ball 4) on the right wing. Instead of driving to the open baseline, he dribbled into help and was stripped by Avry Holmes. Holmes would go coast-to-coast, turning the live-ball turnover into a transition layup to cut the lead to 75-72. Carolina’s offense was stagnant on this play, and the spacing was poor.
- Good two-man action between Jackson and Meeks (a dribble hand-off, leading to a screen-and-roll) led to an attempt at the rim for a rolling Meeks. Sidy Djitte, a defensive force all night, blocked Meeks at the rim, but the Heels controlled the offensive board (on a Meeks tip-out to Britt). With no shot-clock reset, Jackson was forced to take a contested floater (which he almost made) constrained by an expiring clock. This was a good offensive possession—Meeks, who didn’t have his best finishing night (to put it mildly), needed to score or draw a foul here.
- After stealing the outlet pass in the backcourt, Jackson was again stripped (read: grabbed/fouled) in the paint. And, again, this live-ball turnover led quickly to points (a Britt foul in transition and two Clemson free throws to cut the lead to a single point).
- Berry and Meeks ran a high pick-and-roll and, after Clemson helped from the wing on a rolling Meeks, Berry kicked to the right wing for a Jackson 3-point attempt. Djitte, who had helped and recovered, forced a pretty tough shot with his great length (again, was really impressed with his defense). Clemson had switched a post-to-post cross-screen/exchange between Jackson and Meeks (which is how Djitte ended up Jackson to begin with). Had the Heels recognized this sooner, they could have looked to get Meeks a post touch or to isolate Jackson against a center. Although this wasn’t a terrible offensive possession, the lack of situational awareness is a bit troubling for a veteran team.
- After Djitte slipped in the backcourt, Berry attacked a 5-on-4 in the secondary break (urged on by Roy and the bench) and threw up a heavily contested floater. Meeks drew a (non-shooting) foul while fighting for the offensive board. Hicks subbed in for Britt during the dead-ball, then set a ball screen for Berry which resulted in another wild floater from the UNC lead guard. Meeks grabbed two more offensive boards, getting blocked on the first stick-back before drawing contact on the second. He’d convert a pair of free throws. Even UNC’s only scoring possession in this stretch took four chances (and an opponent slipping).
- With UNC protecting a 3-point lead, Roy called a set from the sidelines to create a back-door opportunity for Jackson. The ball was delivered perfectly by Meeks, but Blossomgame blocked Jackson’s layup attempt with a strong help-side rotation. Great set and execution here—just better defense by Clemson.
- On the defensive end, Carolina forced a turnover when Hicks moved his feet well to angle a driving Blossomgame (who Clemson had isolated) deep under the basket. Hicks didn’t have a strong overall defensive game on Clemson’s star forward, but this was a terrific play at a crucial time. On the ensuing offensive possession, UNC called a timeout with 12 seconds left on the shot clock. It appeared as if the post-TO set was a side double ball screen for Berry on the left wing, but he turned it down (strong Holmes ball pressure was a factor here) to attack off the dribble. With the shot clock below 5, Berry attempted a drive-and-kick pass to Williams which was easily intercepted.
- After UNC forced another turnover (this time with a strong Hicks help rotation after Jackson forced the dribbler baseline—just the way the Heels practice it!), it had the ball with a 3-point lead and the shot clock off (29 seconds on the game clock). Clemson didn’t defend the ball, instead shadowing Berry to deny him the ball. Good coaching move by Brownell, and the Heels countered by getting the ball to Jackson, their second-best foul shooter. He promptly missed the front-end of a one-and-one.
- After Clemson tied the game on a Marcquise Reed 3 off the dribble (Berry gave him way too much cushion given the score and time—another mental mistake/lack of situational awareness), UNC had the ball for (ostensibly) the final possession with a chance to win. The Heels ran a high pick-and-roll with Hicks and Berry that Clemson immediately switched. Meanwhile, Meeks was ducking in hard from the opposite block to receive a post entry feed (while Hicks set a screen for a curling Jackson rather than rolling to the rim). Berry forced a tough-angle entry that was stolen by Djitte. Better options would have been to take an extra dribble or two to set up a better entry angle (and bounce pass), or to hit Britt in the corner to make the entry feed. Even if the Heels had successfully executed the post entry pass, the option of Meeks scoring in the post against Djitte seemed like a low-percentage one. Given that the Tigers were switching all ball screens, a set to take advantage of a mismatch would have made sense (Hicks had the 6’3″ Reed on him, but wasn’t used as a roller after setting the initial ball screen). While turnovers and bad execution sometimes happen in big possessions, Berry’s subsequent reach-in foul 75 feet from the hoop (with 5 seconds remaining) is the type of mistake that should never occur. Because of Berry’s egregious mental lapse, Carolina had to hope that an 81% foul shooter on the season (78% in 334 career attempts) would miss a free throw. Luckily, Holmes obliged. Despite Berry’s brilliance (career highs with 31 points and 7 3s), he would have (probably) ended up the goat had Holmes knocked down the front end.
- Hicks grabbed the defensive board and called a quick timeout, giving UNC 4.4 seconds to try and win the game. It curled Berry off of a double screen to receive Meeks’s in-bounds pass with a head of steam. He got the ball the whole way to the rim, but was contested by the 6’10” Djitte. Berry had Hicks cutting open, and Britt positioned in the right corner as viable options. But Berry’s the go-to guy on this Carolina team, and I had no problem with his decision to attack the rim. All things considered, this was a good set to create a solid opportunity (and even one with multiple options).
Meeks in Overtime
The mediocre execution detailed above meant that the Heels would need to win this one in overtime. And, more than any other Heel, Kennedy Meeks made sure that they would. Despite playing the final 11:02 of regulation and all five overtime minutes, Meeks was able to make some high-energy plays in the extra time. Some of his overtime highlights included:
- A couple of potential assists for Kenny Williams 3s: one on a skip pass after receiving an entry as a roller, and the second after Berry was trapped following a late-clock ball screen (and a poised Meeks calmly found a wide-open Williams on the right wing); although Williams could not convert either of these clean chances, the passes/decisions were both excellent
- Good defensive footwork to force a missed Shelton Mitchell 3 after switching a ball screen; Mitchell did create a bit of space here, but the defensive effort/close-out was strong
- Terrific help defense on Blossomgame, who the Tigers posted up on Jackson (after Hicks fouled out); Jackson fronted the post, with Meeks rotating to contest the Blossomgame shot at the rim (then subsequently altering Djitte’s put-back attempt, then corralling a tough defensive rebound in traffic)
- An outstanding defensive possession in which he again switched onto Mitchell following a high screen, then forced an offensive reset after Mitchell unsuccessfully exploited the mismatch. Meeks then hustled from near the top of the key (where he had contained Mitchell’s iso attack) to help on a baseline drive to block Reed’s layup attempt. Reed would draw a (questionable) foul on Meeks after the blocked shot landed right back in his hands. Although this possession ended in a Meeks foul, it exemplifies the type of effort and basketball IQ that the Heels will need to consistently demonstrate to make another strong postseason run. In the last five minutes of regulation plus overtime, Clemson was 0-6 on shots defended by Meeks; he was a huge reason why the Tigers made just 10-26 (38.5%) 2-pointers in the second half/OT after connecting on 10-14 (71.4%) in the first half.
- The huge “and-1” to give UNC an 83-82 lead with 1:12 left in the game; this was a good job by Britt to get the ball on the with the clock expiring—his penetrating floater also drew help defense from Djitte, freeing Meeks for the put-back (Meeks’s team-leading 7th “and-1” of the season, although he’s completed only 2 of them). Although Britt certainly isn’t UNC’s preferred option with the shot clock running low, he made a winning play here when Berry was too tired to come to the ball. Meeks had a really tough time scoring at the rim against Clemson’s strength, length, and athleticism in the paint, but was able to finish his biggest chance of the night.
- An unbelievable side-armed, in-bounds pass that he rifled deep to Williams with the Heels leading 85-83 and 19 seconds left in the game; Williams calmly swished both ends of a 1-and-1 to give UNC a two-possession lead
- A steal (although it was forced by Britt and Berry’s pressure, and a deflection (kicked ball?) by Britt) followed by another home-run outlet pass to Williams for an exclamation-point layup
That’s obviously a lot of good things to accomplish in a 5-minute overtime period, especially for a player whose stamina and endurance have been major questions marks.
Thanks for reading; hope to get another (shorter) post up at some point soon breaking down Berry’s points/huge offensive game and UNC’s (largely unsuccessful) defense on Jaron Blossomgame.