Before Sunday’s game against Notre Dame, North Carolina coach Roy Williams issued a challenge to his big men. It was a challenge that seemed simple, but one that would prove to have devastating consequences for No. 20 Notre Dame (17-7, 6-5 ACC).
“He said to ‘guard them and make them guard you,”’ senior forward Isaiah Hicks said. “We had to take advantage of our size, and we’ve got to guard them.”
UNC’s big men – Hicks (6-9), senior forward Kennedy Meeks (6-10) and freshman forward Tony Bradley (6-11) – did just that, combining for 37 points and 20 rebounds in the Tar Heel’s 83-76 win Sunday afternoon at the Greensboro Coliseum. And if not for Meeks fouling out with a little more than five minutes left, it could have been more.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey brought 6-10, 255-pound Martinas Geben off the bench and opted to go with a smaller lineup to start the game. He had hoped the smaller lineup would offset’s UNC’s bigger lineup.
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“Playing small was the only way we were going to have a chance,” Brey said.
It got the Fighting Irish within two points late in the game, after a V.J. Beachem 3-pointer. But the Tar Heels’ size eventually wore them down.
Wearing down opponents is what the No. 12 Tar Heels (21-4, 9-2) have done to opponents all season. If the Tar Heels aren’t on a fast break, they are playing inside-out, looking for its bigs first to dominate down low. And when the bigs are covered, they can kick it out to players like the 6-0 junior guard Joel Berry or the 6-8 junior forward/guard Justin Jackson.
On Sunday, the 6-4 sophomore guard Kenny Williams too made three of his four 3-point field goal attempts.
Meeks, Bradley and Hicks all finished with double-figures on Sunday. Bradley had 12 points and five rebounds, Hicks had 14 points and seven rebounds, and Meeks had 11 points and eight rebounds.
Aside from a pass Hicks threw well over Kenny Williams’ head on a potential fast break in the second half, Roy Williams was complimentary of his forwards.
“They were important for us,” he said. “I mean, if were not in foul trouble, we would have been able to stay bigger and seeing if we could exploit that and make that more important in their perimeter play.”
The Tar Heels had 19 second chance points and won the overall rebounding advantage over Notre Dame 44-25. The 19-rebound differential will only further separate the Tar Heels from other teams in the country. Before the game, the Tar Heels out-rebounded its opponents by 13.5 rebounds per game. Central Florida is second with an 11.4 rebounding margin per game.
Meeks said he expects the Tar Heels’ intensity on the boards to carry over to their next game, when they play rival Duke (18-5, 6-4) on Thursday in Durham.
“Right now we’re looking forward to Thursday,” Meeks said. “It’s going to be good. It’s going to be a hostile environment. We’ve just got to take advantage of getting up on them early.”
UNC at Duke
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham