Before each game, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams gets a scouting report from assistant coach Hubert Davis. Before the Tar Heels hosted Pittsburgh on Saturday, the scouting report’s bullet points had a common theme: Sense of urgency.
“They are only hearing it from us every 13 seconds,” Williams said after North Carolina’s 96-65 win over the Panthers. “If they don’t got it by now, we need to start speaking a different language.”
No need for that; it looked like the coaching staffs’ message was well received throughout the Carolina locker room. Despite a bumpy start, the Tar Heels snapped a three-game losing streak in a rout of the Panthers.
Before the game, Williams said he stressed to his team the need to defend, rebound and have good effort. Carolina dominated the boards 47-28, had 29 assists on 36 made field goals and held Pitt to 38 percent shooting for the game. Six players scored in double figures, and North Carolina got the month of February off to a good start. Executing the X’s and O’s on the court help, but with the final stretch of the season starting – six games remain on the schedule, three at home – the players know it’s time to step it up a notch if they hope to make another deep tournament run.
“It’s time to get in gear; this is time when everything has to be clicking,” senior guard Joel Berry said after scoring 12 points against Pitt. “There’s no more being a freshman, sophomore, being a younger guy. You’ve had 60 practices up under your belt, a couple of games under your belt, now this is the time you want to hit your stride going into the last couple of games in the ACC and going into the tournament and the NCAA tournament. This is when things have to start clicking, defensively and offensively, and everything has to be in sync.”
Younger guys like freshmen Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks contributed in the Pitt win, each scoring 10 points. Williams even went through a period when he played both bigs on the floor at the same time.
“We’ve done that before where we played both of them, and we will continue to do it,” Williams said. “I like the fact that they both got 10, but they have to get more than four rebounds between the two of them.”
Carolina couldn’t continue to let teams to thrive from three-point range. During their three game slide, the Tar Heels surrendered 12 three’s to Virginia Tech and 15 each to N.C. State and Clemson. Pitt hit four of its first five, and finished with 10, but only hit two in the second half.
“I think we accepted coach’s challenge of getting better on the defensive end and not give up all those three’s,” Berry said. “That’s the biggest thing. We can play with teams when they are hitting two’s, but it’s hard to play with teams when they are hitting 15 three’s. You can’t play with anybody like that. I think we did a better job of getting out on the three-point shot, and that’s what helped us tonight.”
Before the game, Berry and his classmate, Theo Pinson, had a talk. Berry and Pinson have been a part of the deep tournament runs Carolina has made the last two years, ending with consecutive trips to the National Championship game. They are the only two seniors in the rotation, and they realize their careers are quickly coming to an end. February can’t play out like January, when the Heels went 4-5. Pinson, who led the way with 13 rebounds and 8 assists, said the Heels lost a bit of their edge during January.
“We needed to pick that up,” Pinson said. “And we did a good job today.”
Kenny Williams, a junior, used the term “uber focused” when asked what shifts from one month to another as play intensifies.
“You might not be as focused as you are in November as you are in February and March,” Williams said. “Guys know what time it is, especially the older guys, we know what time it is and we know that we have to be super focused to make the run that we need to make. You can point out on the defensive end the difference early in the season and the difference in February and into the tournaments. You can see a big difference in our focus on that in when we make those runs.”