North Carolina

JP Tokoto’s defense of NC State’s Trevor Lacey instrumental in UNC victory

N.C. State's Trevor Lacey (1) loses control of the ball under pressure from UNC's J.P. Tokoto (13) during the second half of an ACC basketball game played Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, at PNC Arena in Raleigh.
N.C. State's Trevor Lacey (1) loses control of the ball under pressure from UNC's J.P. Tokoto (13) during the second half of an ACC basketball game played Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, at PNC Arena in Raleigh. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The people booed J.P. Tokoto while he walked off the court but he said he didn’t hear it. There were about four minutes remaining in North Carolina’s eventual 81-79 victory against N.C. State on Wednesday night and Tokoto, the Tar Heels’ junior forward, absorbed the hate in stride.

“That’s fine,” Tokoto said later, smiling. “ I don’t want them to like me. I want them to hate me. I made it tough on their star player. I didn’t even notice the boos.”

The Tar Heels’ win will be remembered for another fine performance from Marcus Paige, who scored a season-high 23 points and finished with nine assists and zero turnovers. It will be remembered for the Wolfpack’s late rally that fell short.

But it was a victory defined by the details, too – perhaps none more important than the job Tokoto did defending Trevor Lacey, N.C. State’s leading scorer. Lacey got his points against UNC – he finished with 19, slightly above his average – but he made just four of his 13 shots.

Lacey said afterward Tokoto was there “every shot,” and Tokoto’s reach and length – at 6-foot-6 he’s 3 inches taller than Lacey – seemed to bother Lacey. Tokoto said he could sense Lacey’s frustration.

“I did, I did,” Tokoto said. “And at one point in time, their team – they were yelling at each other. Especially when we went (on) our run – they weren’t hitting shots, we were hitting shots, getting and-ones, getting steals, getting rebounds.

“They kind of broke down and we noticed that and just kept hitting them.”

Tokoto possesses the athleticism and the physical attributes – particularly the long, lean frame – to be an excellent defender. He isn’t always, though.

He often draws some of UNC’s most difficult defensive assignments and sometimes leaves coach Roy Williams wanting more. It wasn’t like that Wednesday night.

“I thought J.P. was sensational defensively,” Williams said. “And you guys have heard me, I’m not one of those guys that falls in love with his defense all the time but boy, he was good today.”

Tokoto’s overall performance Wednesday was representative of the season he’s having. He scored a relatively quiet seven points, and attempted just four shots.

But he did a little bit of everything else: four rebounds, five assists, a steal. And then the defensive job on Lacey, who should have entered the game with no shortage of confidence after scoring 21 points in the Wolfpack’s victory against Duke on Sunday.

Tokoto watched parts of that game, he said, and then studied Lacey a bit on film.

“Just watched his tendencies and what he liked to do, and I had help from my coaches and stuff,” Tokoto said. “So it was easy (to prepare).”

Putting those preparations into practice, though, were another story. The key to defending Lacey, known for his quickness and ability to penetrate and make difficult shots, was to “disrupt” him, Tokoto said.

And that the Tar Heels did – especially in the first half. After such a strong performance against Duke, Lacey entered halftime with two points. At that point, he’d missed six of his seven shots.

It was only later, when N.C. State was at its most desperate, when Lacey became more involved. Seventeen of his points came after halftime – and 10 came at the free throw line – while the Wolfpack attempted to come back from a 12-point deficit in the final minutes.

The Wolfpack came close but it never did come all the way back. It never led, either – in large part because of both Lacey’s frustrating start and Tokoto’s defense that forced that frustration.

“I’m going to say this,” Tokoto said. “He made my job easier because he was pulling up. I had a lot of length and he’s only 6-3, so getting a hand up, bothering him, was easy for me.”

With about four minutes to play, Tokoto picked up his fourth foul and headed to the bench. He walked off the court while the crowd booed him, and he was too focused to notice.

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