Before every game, UNC coach Roy Williams writes down three things that will be his team’s focus.
And for the first time – prior to Saturday’s Round of 32 matchup against No. 9 seed Providence – Williams wrote: “Make our defense the biggest factor in the game.”
On Saturday night, North Carolina, the No. 1 seed in the East, did just that in its 85-66 win over the Friars. The Tar Heels clamped down on defense and pulled away from Providence midway through the second half in a game closer than the score indicates. The win puts UNC in the Sweet 16 for the second straight season and third time in five years.
Providence junior guard Kris Dunn, the Big East player of the year, caught fire early in the game, hitting four of his first five shots before sitting with foul trouble.
In the first 41 seconds of the second half, he continued his tear, scoring on a fast break layup and a dunk the very next play.
The few Providence fans at PNC Arena cheered as if there were more of them.
Senior guard Marcus Paige had two fouls, so Williams put 6-foot-8 sophomore Justin Jackson on Dunn instead of 6-0 Joel Berry because of his length, Jackson said.
“When coach calls you, you got to be ready to (sic) stick the challenge,” Jackson said.
Jackson didn’t immediately slow Dunn, however. With 15:31 left in the game, Dunn faked as if he would run to catch the ball at the wing, but instead went back door and received a pass for a dunk to tie the game at 41-41.
But over the next 10 minutes Jackson put the clamps on Dunn. He managed only one point during that stretch, which was key. Jackson’s tall frame and even longer wingspan bothered Dunn. Jackson picked him up full court and limited Dunn’s touches.
“With guys like that, you have to make it as hard as you possibly can for them to catch it, because he’s going to get his,” Jackson said. “He’s a pro.”
Jackson said his teammates did a good job playing defense on Dunn, rotating when someone needed help.
By the time Dunn scored again, there was a little over five minutes left in the game and the Friars were down 70-54 – too much for a comeback.
“Justin Jackson was really good defensively,” Williams said. “Really good. Kris Dunn has 29 and I thought we did a really good job on them.
“That’s how good they are.”
The Tar Heels and its defense was also able to slow Providence’s leading scorer Ben Bentil, who fouled out with 7:23 left in the game. The Friars were down by 13 at that point.
In recent games, UNC has been successful because of its defense – especially during the ACC tournament, when the Tar Heels beat Virginia at their own game.
“We were doing a good job of keeping them out of the lane,” Paige said. “Every shot they took was contested.”
Providence as a team shot only 40 percent, and turned the ball over 11 times.
“If we can find a way to channel that a little bit earlier, it’ll be better for us,” Paige said. “We’re getting to the point defensively where we can hang our hats on that side of the floor.”