At some point in the past month, Marcus Paige said, he and his North Carolina teammates figured out they weren’t overflowing with offensive talent. (His words.) That’s when they started making more of a commitment to defense. To turn around their season, they didn’t have any choice.
The Tar Heels have benefited from some schedule relief during their five-game winning streak, winning games most outsiders would consider winnable. They also took that time to focus on the defensive end, with their improvement measured Saturday against Pittsburgh, a dogged defensive team in its own right with a versatile scoring threat in Lamar Patterson.
Against one of the ACC’s grind-it-out teams, the Tar Heels did the grinding.
They escaped some late-game foibles to post a critical 75-71 win, their sixth straight. James Michael McAdoo and Paige powered the offense, but defense was the reason North Carolina won.
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Patterson was held to 16 points on 5-for-15 shooting, partly by first-half foul trouble but also by the work of J.P. Tokoto, primarily, as well as Isaiah Hicks and Leslie McDonald. The Tar Heels forced 14 turnovers, battled the Panthers to a 40-40 draw on the boards and blocked nine shots -- five by Brice Johnson, otherwise North Carolina’s weakest defender.
It was the latest example of how North Carolina has quietly become one of the ACC’s better defensive teams. Per Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings, only Virginia and Clemson had better defenses going into Saturday’s games. A program famous for its fast-break offense is winning games because of its lock-down defense.
“We can be really tough because we have length, we have athleticism, we have shot-blockers,” Paige said. “We’ve taken that to heart. Since we’re not the best offensive team in the world, we’re going to hang our hat on defense, and it’s paid off for us.”
The obvious question being, what took so long?
“I understand,” Paige said. “It’s like, ‘Why wouldn’t you just apply that earlier in the year?’ I just think we’ve grown up a little bit and understood, after those tough losses early, those were devastating to us, and we knew we had to make a change, because our season would have not been the way it is right now.”
The way it is right now, the Tar Heels are 7-4 in the ACC, with any NCAA tournament doubts conjured by the baffling losses and 1-4 start in conference play long ago erased. (Pittsburgh, on the other hand, missed its final opportunity for a statement win until the ACC tournament.) Any lingering fallout from the P.J. Hairston situation has dissipated. McAdoo continues to play with authority.
There are issues, particularly on offense beyond McAdoo and Paige, but the ups and downs that plagued the Tar Heels earlier in the season have smoothed out, a state of affairs is reflected most notably on defense, where the progress is evident and the results have followed.
“I think we’re getting better, but I try to look back at the end of the season and evaluate at that time, because it’s a process that we’re going through,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “My goodness, we work so hard every day on trying to be better defensively.”
The really tough run of games begins now, unexpectedly crowded thanks to Wednesday’s postponed visit from Duke, starting with a quick turnaround before Monday’s visit to Florida State. That new commitment to defense was tested Saturday, and it will be tested again and again and again this week.
If the Tar Heels’ winning streak has reinforced how they need to play to win, Saturday was the first of four games in eight days that will show just how far they have come.