A minute into the second half, Carolina was clinging to a slim 35-3o lead after Northern Iowa’s Bennett Koch scored over Isaiah Hicks in the paint (the second paint hoop Hicks had allowed to Koch in the first 70 seconds of the half). UNI’s bigs were taking advantage of Kennedy Meeks and Hicks both off the dribble and in the paint. With Panther star Jeremy Morgan (he of the 38-point second half versus North Dakota) yet to get untracked, UNI was threatening to knock off the Heels for a second straight season. Nearly six minutes of game time and a 15-2 run later, UNC led by 18 and the game was essentially over.
So what happened in those decisive six minutes? Let’s take a possession-by-possession look at what qualifies as one of the Heels’ finest stretches of basketball of the year.
On the court for UNC: Joel Berry-Kenny Williams-Justin Jackson-Isaiah Hicks-Kennedy Meeks
- Following the Koch basket to cut UNC’s lead to five, the Heels ran their secondary break, flowing right into the freelance passing game. Berry threw a post entry pass to Hicks on the right block, who was immediately doubled by Northern Iowa. Hicks looked opposite, whipping a cross-court kick-out pass to Williams, who, in one motion, delivered a touch pass to Jackson in the left corner for a clean 3-pointer. Jackson knocked it down: assist to Williams, hockey assist to Hicks. UNC 38, UNI 30
- On its next possession, Northern Iowa ran a high ball screen that Berry was able to fight through and cut off penetration. This forced a kick-out pass to the corner to Jeremy Morgan, who was well-defended by Jackson. He missed a contested 3 with Williams grabbing the defensive rebound. Berry’s ability to curtail the dribble (despite the ball screen) set up this possession for success.
- After receiving the secondary break reversal pass at the top of the key, Hicks attacked off the dribble and drew a shooting foul at the rim. He split a pair of free throw to extend the Carolina lead to nine. UNC 39, UNI 30
- UNI entered the ball to Koch in the post, a place where it had been successful to begin the second half. This time, Hicks walled off Koch’s attempted spin to the middle, forcing him into a contested baseline hook shot. Meeks grabbed the defensive board. This was a decent look by the Panthers, and certainly a shot Koch can make. But Hicks defended it much better than on previous post entries.
- After Hicks was fouled dribbling out of a post double (following an entry pass from Jackson), Carolina in-bounded the ball from the baseline. On the ensuing BLOB action, Berry entered the ball to Hicks on the left block. He eschewed the dribble hand-off action in favor of attempting a contested turnaround jumper from the left baseline. While Hicks can make this shot (and did make a tougher turnaround late against Kentucky), UNC probably could have gotten a better look by running its offense. But, as so often is the case with the Heels, getting a shot on the rim is just the first step to creating a scoring chance. Meeks grabbed the offensive board, missing a tough-angle stick-back. This time, it was Williams crashing down from the perimeter who grabbed the offensive board. Rather than forcing it up (and trying to crack the scoring column), he selflessly kicked it out to an open Berry at the top of the key for a 3-pointer that stretched Carolina’s lead to double digits. These are the types of second-chance, kick-out 3s that Jay Bilas (justifiably) salivates over. UNC 42, UNI 30
- TIME OUT: NORTHERN IOWA (Note: For the “always call a time out to stop a run” critics of Roy Williams, the Heels continued their run following this stoppage, scoring 11 of the next 13 points to push the lead to 21. Anecdotal, sure. But there’s plenty of similar data points that call into question the run-stopping efficacy of a time out.)
- Carolina sprung a half-court trap on UNI upon exiting the time out. It didn’t result in either a turnover for the Heels or an open look for the Panthers, instead merely leading to an offensive reset (and some seconds off the shot clock). UNI isolated Klint Carlson against Meeks at the top of the key, a matchup they’d been successfully exploiting all evening. This time, however, Meeks skillfully moved his feet to deny penetration. With the shot clock dwindling down to five seconds, Carlson was forced to settle for a really tough step-back 3 that Meeks was able to aggressively contest. Hicks grabbed the defensive rebound to cap off one of UNC’s signature defensive possessions of the night.
- On the ensuing secondary break, Berry capitalized on an penetration opportunity, crossing his man over and blowing by all the way to the rim for an easy layup. Though it wasn’t a traditional primary break situation with a numbers advantage, Berry’s opportunistic push enabled the Heels to score an easy hoop within the first five seconds of the clock. As Berry gets better at identifying and exploiting these chances, UNC’s transition offense will continue to improve. UNC 44, UNI 30
- UNI went right back to its Carlson-Meeks isolation action, this time with much better floor spacing (almost comically exaggerated spacing on this possession). Like in the first half, Carlson was able to beat Meeks off the dribble for an easy layup (Hicks’s help rotation was too late to be effective). This was the only clear defensive breakdown of the entire run by UNC. UNC 44, UNI 32
- Undeterred by allowing a hoop on the other end, Meeks worked hard for post position and received a right block post entry from Jackson. UNI sent another quick double, and Meeks looked opposite, locating an open Berry on the left wing. He missed the 3-pointer, but this is exactly the type of clean inside-out perimeter look that UNC loves to create.
- Northern Iowa was looking to take advantage of Meeks in space again, but he moved his feet well to deny a dribble hand-off attempt. This forced an attempted drive-and-kick constrained by an expiring shot clock. Berry contained the dribble well, and Williams executed a textbook help-and-recover (without overhelping) close-out to contest a corner 3 with only a couple seconds left on the clock. This was another really strong UNC defensive possession closed out by Hicks defensive rebound.
- Meeks again carved out good post position to receive a left block secondary break entry from Berry. Unlike the previous possession, the Panthers didn’t bring an immediate double this time, and a patient Meeks was able to turn to the middle (over his strongly preferred left shoulder) and connect on a feathery righty jump hook. He’s now making over 50% of his hooks on the season, and this type of patience and shot selection is a big reason why (identifying and attacking single coverage, kicking it out against double teams). UNC 46, UNI 32
- UNI ran a double high ball screen on its next possession, involving Berry, Meeks, and Jackson. The Heels switched the screens (communicating it well), leaving Berry on a big, Jackson on a point guard, and Meeks on Morgan (the Panthers’ star wing). UNI got the ball to Morgan to exploit the mismatch with Meeks, but he was unable to penetrate, instead settling for a contested 3-pointer. It missed, with Jackson controlling the defensive board. More good Meeks defense, although this is a shot that Morgan can knock down (this isn’t the type of ball screen switch that the Heels should make a living employing).
- Carolina ran its freelance passing game on the next trip down, probing for opportunities to again feed the post. Williams finally found one, entering the ball to Meeks on the left block. UNI gambled for the steal, leaving Meeks with an easy drop-step to the rim to draw a foul. He knocked down a pair of free throws to extend the lead to 16. UNC 48, UNI 32
- SUBSTITUTION: Tony Bradley in for Meeks (this was one of Meeks’s best two-way stints of the season in terms of consistent effort; definitely a well-earned break)
- The Heels tried another half-court trap, but UNI attacked this one well to create a clean look at a corner 3 against a scrambling-to-recover defense. Despite the open opportunity, Northern Iowa was unable to connect and Jackson corralled the defensive board. This is the type of “made shot/missed shot” luck that is usually present when a team makes a big run—although, in the case of this Carolina spurt, there wasn’t a ton of luck involved (mainly just great execution on both ends).
- After Jackson’s attempted post entry to Bradley was deflected out of bounds, UNC entered the ball from the side. The Heels then ran a set that I don’t recall seeing (at least not frequently) that involved a double high ball screen on the wing (by Bradley and Jackson) for Berry. That seemed primarily like dummy/decoy action, as Williams was simultaneously setting a block-to-block cross-screen to free Hicks on the left block. Berry entered the ball to Hicks, who again settled for that left baseline turnaround jumper (spinning away from UNI’s post double in the process). Following his cross-screen, Williams curled off a double screen (set again by Jackson and Bradley) near the top of the key and was open. This kick-out pass to the curler was probably the play Hicks should have made instead of forcing a shot against the double team. Even though it didn’t create a clean shot, this was an interesting wrinkle by the Heels to complement their usual sets out of the box formation.
- On UNI’s next trip, it used one big to set a ball screen for its other big. Hicks and Bradley switched this exchange, leading to a strong defensive possession for Bradley who was able to curtail dribble penetration two separate times. This ultimately forced an offensive reset, leading to a contested mid-range jumper against an expiring shot clock that was well-defended by Berry. It was again one-and-done for the Panthers (who conceded offensive rebounds all night in order to set their defense), with Jackson grabbing the uncontested rebound.
- Jackson, upon controlling the defensive board, pushed the ball himself in transition. Usually sure-handed, he had his dribble deflected to lead to a loose-ball situation. Berry was first to the floor to win the battle, shuffling the ball to Williams to avoid a held ball situation. Williams then lobbed it to an open Hicks, who finished emphatically (although not as emphatically as later in the game) above the rim for a two-handed flush. Nothing in the box score for Berry, but a floor burn and a hockey assist in the charting stats. UNC 50, UNI 32
Although UNC would score next on a Britt 3-pointer, that was after a nearly 3-minute scoreless stretch from both sides (so it didn’t seem appropriate to include as part of this run).
For this 15-2 spurt, a couple of commonalities emerged from the above possession descriptions. First, UNC was running nearly everything through the post. On nine possessions, the Heels attempted nine post entry passes. This is how Roy Williams always want to attack an overmatched mid-major defense. UNC did create some perimeter looks, but they were generated through inside-out action following post doubles. Secondly, UNC’s did a great job of limiting penetration and the clean drive-and-kick/spot-up opportunities that UNI’s offense thrives on. This led to several late-clock possessions in which the Panthers had to settle for long, contested jumpers (four of their eight possessions during this run finished in the final six seconds of the clock—none with a score). Overall, I charted six contested shots for UNI versus only two lightly contested ones during this run.
Kenny Williams, despite not launching a shot, also had a profound impact on this run. For those Heel fans gnashing their teeth about his lack of field goal attempts, here’s proof that he can contribute offensively without ever shooting (especially since the defense still needs to respect him as a threat from behind the arc). Williams had three actual assists plus a hockey assist during this run. He grabbed an offensive board, fed the post, and set solid back0screens and cross-screens. He rarely held the ball for more than a second, and never pounded the ball into the floor needlessly. And he played his usual great defense on the other end. You can win big with a fifth option like that (and Theo Pinson will slide into a similar role when he returns; albeit with a little more flair/playmaking ability/attacking with the dribble, and a little less 3-point marksmanship).