. They were talking about it in the locker room afterward, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said – talking about the Isaiah Hicks’ dunk, and the free-throw that followed, that provided a turning point in the Tar Heels’ 84-73 victory at Syracuse Saturday.
Hicks’ three-point play provided a line of delineation for UNC. Before it, the Tar Heels hadn’t exactly done what they wanted to do – what they knew they could do – against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense. And after that play UNC appeared to execute its offense at will.
For days Williams and his players had discussed how best to attack the Syracuse zone. It’s a defense that causes unique challenges because teams so rarely see anything like it and, if they do, rarely do teams run it with as much effectiveness as Syracuse.
While preparing his team for the game, though, Williams noticed a vulnerability in the zone. He observed it while he watched Clemson’s victory at Syracuse earlier in the week, when the Tigers had success working the ball inside.
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Williams studied how Clemson did it.
“I watched that game – they were effective getting the ball inside,” Williams said. “And so we did try to focus getting it inside, and we always try to keep one guy below the defense against the zone, and we were able to get some (opportunities).
“It was good passes by Brice (Johnson), there’s no question about that.”
And strong finishes from Hicks. He finished with 21 points, several of them coming at the rim after layups and dunks. He received those scoring chances thanks to UNC successfully executing what it envisioned.
The target area, senior guard Marcus Paige said Saturday, was the “ACC” logo in the free-throw line. The idea was for the Tar Heels to work the ball to that one point on the court, either through dribble penetration or with a pass to Brice Johnson, the senior forward, or another big man.
UNC’s hope was that if it could make it to that spot on the court, the zone defense would collapse on the ball, allowing for the man in the post – often Hicks, in the final minutes – space to roam free. Hicks’ three-point play, and that turning-point dunk, came off of a pass from Johnson.
Which came after UNC successfully worked the ball to that sweet spot in the zone.
“Once we kind of figured out how to get the ball there consistently, it was over,” Paige said.
The numbers back up his assertion. During the final 8½ minutes, after UNC solved the zone defense, the Tar Heels outscored Syracuse 34-17.
During that stretch, Hicks scored on three dunks – all of them off of assists from Johnson. He finished with a career-high eight assists, days after he set career highs with 39 points and 23 rebounds in a victory at Florida State.
“I’m just trying to help us win,” Johnson said, smiling widely, when presented with the thought that he was trying to add point guard to his resume after what he’d done against Florida State.
In January 2014, UNC scored 45 points in a miserable defeat at Syracuse, a loss in which the Tar Heels could do little right offensively. The Tar Heels on Saturday night nearly doubled their scoring total from that game – and they did it with only three points from Paige.
He missed seven of his eight shots from the field yet finished with six rebounds and eight assists, which tied him with Johnson for the team high against the Orange. Williams said afterward that he wouldn’t have given his team much of a chance with Paige only scoring three points.
And in years past, UNC might have lost with such a meager output from one of its best offensive players. But not this year.
“It just shows you the depth and balance we have,” Paige said. “The past couple of years we kind of struggled to be an elite offensive team and this year, with the emergence of our sophomores and Isaiah playing a bigger role, Brice being a dominant force on the inside – we have an elite offense.”
Even against a difficult zone defense that often causes teams fits in part because of how rarely they encounter it. And indeed, it took a while for UNC to figure it out Saturday.
The Tar Heels shot 42.4 percent and scored 33 points during the first half. And then, once they got going, shot 64.3 percent and scored 51 points – more than they scored in that loss at Syracuse two years ago – in the second half.
Everything changed for UNC once it began successfully executing its high-low offense. There was Johnson in the middle of the zone and Hicks sitting beneath it, and the result was exactly what Williams and his players had envisioned.