According to the numbers it was among North Carolina’s finest defensive games in Roy Williams’ 14-year tenure as the Tar Heels’ head coach. According to Williams, though, UNC’s defense wasn’t anything special during its 65-41 victory against Virginia on Saturday.
First, the numbers: Virginia’s 41 points were the fewest UNC has ever allowed against Williams. The Cavaliers made but 27.8 percent of their shots on Saturday at the Smith Center, and they missed 18 of their 20 3-point attempts.
At one point in the second half, they missed 11 consecutive shots from the field. London Perrantes, the Virginia senior point guard, rarely had much room to move, what with Joel Berry, the Tar Heels’ junior, hounding him nearly from start to finish. UNC’s defensive success, or apparent success, started with Berry.
“Joel did a tremendous job on Perrantes,” said Kennedy Meeks, a UNC senior forward. “I think when he plays defense like that like he did on (N.C. State guard) Dennis Smith (on Wednesday), the sky’s the limit for us and when he’s leading us on the defensive end.”
After all of that, though – after Virginia’s misses, and after Perrantes’ struggles; after the Cavaliers, one of the nation’s most efficient offensive teams looked plain offensive on offense – Williams strolled into a roomful of reporters and said, essentially, that he wasn’t all too impressed.
No. 10 UNC (23-5, 11-3 ACC) in recent weeks – in recent months, really – hadn’t been playing well defensively. The Tar Heels had played well in stretches, but they’d been missing the kind of defensive precision that guided their deep NCAA tournament run a season ago.
I don’t think we were as good as the statistics will look like.
The numbers suggested that maybe UNC found it on Saturday. Williams, though, didn’t see it.
“We were playing pretty well defensively sometimes, and sometimes they got wide-open shots and they just didn’t go in,” Williams said. “That happens sometimes in the game of basketball.”
And that, more or less, was Williams’ assessment of his defense. What did he like about it?
“You know,” he said, “it’s hard to say because I kept saying, ‘Gosh, he was open; gosh, he was open; gosh, he was open.’ So I like to look at tape, because I’m not real pleased defensively with anything we did right now.”
There have been games this season in which the Tar Heels have allowed their opponents to score in the high 70s, or 80s, or even in the 100s, as Kentucky did, and after some of those games Williams didn’t sound as down on his defense as he did on Saturday. The results, at least, were a different story.
Statistically speaking, this was the kind of defensive performance for which UNC has been searching. The Cavaliers’ 41 points were the second-fewest any team has ever scored in the Smith Center, only behind Clemson’s 39 in 1995. Those 41 points were the fewest No. 14 Virginia (18-8, 8-6) had scored against UNC since 1947.
The Cavaliers scored 38 back then in a loss at UNC’s Woollen Gymnasium, where students nowadays fill the courts with games of pick-up ball. Virginia’s offense lacked cohesion to such a degree on Saturday that sometimes it didn’t look much more polished than a random collection of players might.
After the game, Williams wasn’t the only one questioning how much UNC was responsible for the Cavaliers’ woeful offensive performance. Was it that they simply missed shots at an alarming rate? Was it a superior defensive performance from UNC? Both?
“It was kind of a weird game,” said Theo Pinson, the Tar Heels’ junior forward. “I mean, those guys, they can shoot the ball really well … they missed a lot of shots that they usually make, but we had a lot of activity on the defensive end.
“Some credit goes to us, but at the same time, that’s how the game goes sometimes.”
UNC’s defensive success – whether more attributable to a bad shooting night or not – helped the Tar Heels on the other end. They turned long misses into transition opportunities, some of which ended with dunks or layups before Virginia could set its defense.
Before Saturday UNC faced the usual questions before a game against Virginia: How would the Tar Heels fare in a game with a slower tempo? How would they manage to run their offense against the Cavaliers’ stifling half-court defense?
The Tar Heels, led by Justin Jackson’s 20 points, answered those throughout the first half. They quickened the pace when they could and, at times, they simply shot over Virginia’s defense. Jackson, who made four 3-pointers during the first half, did so often. And now there’s a new question: Was this a defensive turning point? Could it be?
“I think it can help us know that we can guard teams – especially a team like that,” Berry said. “If we can guard any other team like we did tonight, that will always be good, and that’s what we want to do.”
The defensive show, it turned out, was just beginning in the first half. The Tar Heels arguably played their best defensive half of the season then – and then they were even better, at least according to the numbers, in the second half.
And yet afterward, there wasn’t much of a sense of accomplishment. Williams sounded about as pleased with the defense as he’s been after some of his team’s defeats this season.
“We did some good things,” he said. “But I swear, I mean you guys saw the game. A lot of times, they’ve got a guy wide-open in the corner, shoots it, it goes all the way down the hole and comes out. But I thought we had a sense of urgency defensively, I thought we tried to do it.
“But I don’t think we were as good as the statistics will look like.”