Up nine with about six minutes left, Carolina had a perfect opportunity to step on a lesser opponent’s throat. Due to some suspect late-game execution, though, the Heels had to force a last-second stop to escape with a victory. While a win’s a win, especially in the ACC, it would be nice to see the Heels develop the mentality to consistently put away inferior teams. And that starts with a dedication to the defensive end and stringing together consecutive stops.
Let’s break down the last several minutes of Tuesday’s contest to see what went wrong (and right) for UNC.
Following a Kennedy Meeks passing turnover (after he tried to kick it out to the wing following a post double; Nate Britt didn’t do him any favors by being completely stationary), Pitt took over down 68-59 with 5:30 left in the game. We’ll go possession-by-possession from that point on:
PITT1 (68-62): Pitt ran a staggered high ball screen, then had the second screener (Sheldon Jeter) immediately set a screen for the first (Michael Young) to free him for a three from the top of the key. You may remember this exact set from when Syracuse ran it twice for Tyler Lydon (see below) to victimize Isaiah Hicks. Hicks was again targeted here, and he simply needs to do a better job of anticipating and navigating screens away from the ball. I love this set, by the way, and wouldn’t mind if RoyW stole it to use in a key postseason possession with Jackson as a small-ball 4 (playing the Lydon/Young role).
UNC1 (68-62): For the second straight possession (with Pitt back in its man-to-man defense), Meeks received a touch on the right block (this time on a Justin Jackson post entry). Unlike on the previous turnover, Britt immediately relocated to the left corner, allowing Meeks to hit him with a nice pass after the Panthers again doubled. Britt had a clean mid-range look from about 17 feet, but wasn’t able to connect.
PITT2 (68-65): Following the Pitt defensive rebound, Jeter simply outraced Meeks down the court. He called for help, forcing Jackson to pick up Jeter at the rim (and causing Hicks to pick up Jackson’s man). In the ensuing confusion, Meeks was a step late to locate/close out on Young, who caught a simple secondary break reversal pass at the top of the key and splashed his second straight 3 from that spot.
UNC2 (70-65): Joel Berry missed a contested left-wing 3 after a simple perimeter exchange with Britt (and using a bit of a brush screen by Meeks). This was a shot that Berry can make, but the Heels didn’t do enough to shift/break down the defense before settling for it. Hicks, however, crashed the glass for the offensive board. After missing an open put-back with his left hand, he grabbed a second offensive rebound and drew the foul on UNC’s third chance. Hicks made both free throws.
PITT3 (70-65): The Panthers got Young a post touch on the left block against Hicks. As he started into his post move, Britt, helping from the top of the key, made a late swipe at the ball. Young easily located Britt’s man (Jamel Artis) for a clean 3-point look. Luckily for the Heels, Artis’ 3 rimmed out. This was probably a low-percentage gamble from Britt considering the time, score, and skill level of Young as a passer.
UNC3 (71-65): After a Hicks defensive rebound, Berry pushed the ball hard in transition against a scrambled defense, drawing a foul at the rim. He split a pair of free throws to push the Heels’ lead back to six.
PITT4 (71-68): But the Panthers would quickly slice that lead in half, creating another 3-pointer by screening Hicks away from the ball. This one started when Jackson and Hicks switched an exchange earlier in the possession, leaving Jackson on Young (who was demanding the ball in the post against him) and Hicks on Cameron Johnson. Artis, after being denied a dribble hand-off by Britt, set a little down screen (more of a brush than a solid pick) for Johnson. Hicks did a poor job of getting through the commotion, allowing Johnson a clean look for his sixth 3-pointer of the night.
UNC4 (71-68): With the shot clock under 10, Berry received a ball screen from Hicks, who then set a screen for a curling Jackson. Berry hit Jackson on the right wing, who then shot-faked, took a single dribble, and launched an open 3 from near the top of the key. This was good patience by Jackson to create a clean perimeter opportunity; he simply misfired. Despite the miss, this was good late-clock execution by the Heels to get their top scorer a look (and to engage its other top options in a ball screen).
PITT5 (71-68): Sensing an exploitable opportunity, Pitt again set an off-ball screen (a Johnson down screen from the left wing) to free Hicks’ man (Young) for a 3-pointer. Hicks took another bad route (losing contact with his man) which allowed Young to flare out for a clean left-wing 3. Though right on line, this one missed a little long. Even on Pitt’s misses, it was consistently creating high-caliber chances during this final stretch.
UNC5 (71-68): Britt grabbed a strong defensive rebound in traffic and was immediately fouled. With the Heels still in the single bonus, he missed the front-end of a 1-and-1.
PITT6 (71-70): After his missed free throw, Pitt went immediately after Britt on the other end. The Panthers posted up the much-bigger Artis on Britt on the left block. Using a couple of powerful back-down dribbles, Artis was able to spin to the hoop for a little floater to cut the lead to a point. As long as Carolina continues to play its 2-PG lineups (and, with Pinson out, there will be long stretches when it’s necessary), Britt’s size will keep being exposed by bigger, more athletic wings like Bruce Brown and Artis.
UNC6 (74-70): With under two minutes left and the Heels clinging to a 71-70 lead, Berry seized the opportunity to make another big play. He used another ball screen from Hicks to get all the way to the rim and finish over Johnson while drawing the foul. It was Berry’s fourth drawn “and-1” of the season, and he’s now completed all four of them by making the foul shot. A key to this finish is that Johnson had switched onto Meeks earlier in the possession, meaning that a Pitt wing was tasked with the help-side rotation rather than one of its bigs. This allowed Berry—who’s struggled recently at the rim (in fact, he had missed 11 straight close shots, and 12 2-pointers in a row dating back to very early in the Boston College game)—to explode to the rim rather than being overpowered by help-side strength/length.
PITT7 (74-73): Following his big play on the offensive end, Berry gave it right back defensively. He gambled for a steal while overplaying the passing lanes, ending up on the floor after the failed attempt. This gave Pitt a 5-on-4 advantage against a scrambling Tar Heel defense. Chris Jones hit Artis on the right wing for a 3-pointer that cut the lead back to 1. While overplaying passing lanes is a central tenet of UNC’s defense, and Berry is among the team leaders in forcing turnovers/getting deflections, this was a really bad gamble given the time and score implications. Despite being a veteran team, Carolina still has some issues with situational awareness that could haunt it in March.
UNC7 (76-73): Jackson, upon receiving a perimeter pass on the left wing, aggressively attacked off the dribble, getting all the way to the rim for a layup. Meeks, who was posting up on the left block, did a nice job of lifting his defender (Young) a step above the block to give Jackson a driving angle and to make Young’s help rotation a bit tougher (as he was wrestling a bit with Meeks for post position). Meeks makes a bunch of little under-the-radar plays like this that speak volumes about his basketball IQ. Kudos to Jackson, too, for not settling for a jumper (or giving the ball up) and instead taking it to the rim with a purpose.
PITT8 (76-73): With Jackson again on Artis (UNC switched Britt off of him immediately after the post move that made it 71-70), the Pitt star attempted to attack him off the bounce. Jackson did a good job of cutting him off, forcing Artis to change directions with a behind-the-back dribble, and setting up Meeks to block his shot in the paint. Both Jackson and Meeks defended this excellently, and the call to take Britt off of Artis was definitely a smart one from the bench (though one could argue that matchup should have never occurred in the first place).
UNC8 (78-73): Following Jackson’s defensive rebound of Artis’ blocked miss, UNC had the ball up 3 with a 13-second differential between shot and game clocks. Berry, who had the ball against light defensive pressure, gave it up to Britt, who the Panthers immediately fouled. While Britt (who’s connected on plenty of big close-and-late free throws as a Tar Heel) did knock down both shots, this is another example of suspect situational awareness. I saw no reason for Berry to give up the ball at all on this possession (unless/until Pitt trapped him, etc.).
PITT9 (78-76): As it would do over the last couple of possessions, UNC subbed in Kenny Williams for Meeks for perimeter defense reasons. Pitt had a sidelines out-of-bounds entry following a Britt deflection, and UNC forced the Panthers into a contested corner 3 (that was created by a perimeter pass against a set defense—no screens, or drive-and-kicks, etc.). Jones ended up knocking it down over Berry, but there’s not much to say about this one other than it was a tough shot. Berry certainly doesn’t want to foul in this situation and, given his size/length, he contested it about as well as he could have.
UNC9 (79-76): During a Pitt timeout, Meeks came in for Williams to throw the in-bounds pass. The Panthers didn’t put anybody on the ball, instead opting to shadow Berry with a second defender. Given that Pitt took away the Heels’ top free throw shooter, Meeks did a good job of finding Jackson, who split a pair of free throws. His late-game issues at the line have been pretty well-documented.
PITT10 (79-78): With Carolina only having five team fouls and 10 seconds left in the game, Roy Williams decided to put the Panthers on the line rather than giving them a potential game-tying 3. I thought this was absolutely the correct call, and I applaud the staff for making it. I do wish that Jackson would have allowed another second or two to come off the clock prior to the first (non-shooting) foul, but that’s a tricky spot (since the worst thing to do is foul in the act of shooting, which Artis tried to do on the second foul). Overall, Jackson executed this really well, and UNC had a one-point lead with five seconds left after Artis hit both free throws.
UNC10 (80-78): This time, Pitt had a defender on the ball during Meeks’ in-bounds attempt. That meant that Berry was single-covered (with Artis shadowing him), but Carolina didn’t set a screen for him and was unable to get the ball into his hands. Hicks used his quickness to break to the ball and receive a Meeks pass, but he too split a pair of crucial free throws. Carolina’s press-breaker doesn’t generally involve setting screens (it’s more free-lance motion and just cutting to open spots of the floor—and sending players deep, too), but it might be a nice wrinkle to help maximize the chances of Berry getting the ball for late-game free throws.
PITT11 (80-78): On Pitt’s final possession, Artis had four seconds left to get the ball up-court to create a game-winning opportunity. He mishandled the ball almost immediately, triggering a level of desperation on his part. Pitt was able to set a brush ball screen in transition, but Hicks (who I’ve maligned a bit in this piece for his inability to recognize situations/fight through screens) did a fantastic job of switching it instantly and forcing a heavily contested running 3 by Artis that never had a chance. After the way that the Villanova and Kentucky losses occurred, this one had to feel good for Hicks, as his perimeter defense here was top-notch.
So, despite hanging on to win, the Carolina players gave the coaching staff plenty of teachable moments during film review. The late-game execution continued to be inconsistent at best, and careless at worst. Ultimately, though, the Heels made just enough plays to win. As a (somewhat spoiled) fanbase, we’d like to see more going for the jugular and less squeaking by. If history’s taught us anything, however, Tar Heel fans should expect Roy and the staff to have this team peaking by late-February and into March. In this case, that will involve cleaning up a lot of the defensive mistakes that have plagued UNC over the last few weeks.