BROOKLYN — North Carolina men’s basketball head coach Roy Williams preaches to his team that the only way to win games in March is with defense.
No. 12 UNC (23-9, 11-7 ACC) failed to follow its coach’s advice last week as it allowed an average of 1.01 points per possession in losses to No. 24 Miami and No. 5 Duke.
But in Tuesday’s 78-59 win over Syracuse (20-13, 8-10 ACC) in the second round of the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels found another gear defensively, showing Williams and themselves what the team is capable of. The Orange’s 59 points mark the lowest total allowed by North Carolina all season.
“I thought defensively it was one of our better games of the year,” Williams said, “if not the best game of the year.”
Kenny Williams was tasked with guarding Syracuse leading scorer Tyus Battle, who entered the day averaging 20 points per game. Two weeks ago, Battle scored 26 in UNC’s tight 78-74 victory at Syracuse. But on Tuesday, Williams held Battle to 15 points and stalled the main engine of the Orange attack.
“The energy, effort and intensity was there,” the junior guard said. “Things we’ve been looking for all season, it was there tonight.”
Williams’ performance impressed senior Joel Berry II, who’s seen what the sophomore Battle is capable of the last two seasons.
“He just made it tough for him,” Berry said. “Every shot that he took was contested. Kenny stayed in front of him for the majority of the time and there were a couple of times he had to force up shots at the end of the shot-clock and just airball.”
Against a backcourt wall of Williams, Berry and senior Theo Pinson, Syracuse consistently failed to get the ball inside and was instead forced to play most of its possessions on the perimeter. In all, the Tar Heels forced six shot-clock violations and countless other tough shots late in the 30-second clock.
For Pinson, causing that level of discomfort for UNC’s opponents was a welcome sight.
“We haven’t had that all year,” Pinson said. “We may have one or two (shot-clock violations) every three games. It was big time for us to have those type of defensive shot-clock violations.”
Even beyond the drawn out possessions, the Tar Heel defense was active. UNC forced eight steals — led by Williams with three — and caused 12 turnovers in total. The Tar Heels took advantage of these opportunities, scoring 13 points off turnovers to Syracuse’s two.
North Carolina’s defensive issues this year have stemmed from allowing three-pointers, typically a result of guards driving and kicking out to open shooters on the perimeter. That wasn’t the case on Tuesday as the Orange only hit eight threes – including just one in the second half.
“It kind of disrupted them because they were unable to get dribble penetration the way that they wanted to,” Kenny Williams said.
The Tar Heels had four scorers in double figures, but slowed down offensively for a stretch, allowing Syracuse to pull within nine with 4:17 left. But UNC quelled any late rally thanks a few key stops and some transition layups from Williams, whose 17 points led the team.
Junior Luke Maye knows plenty lies ahead for the Tar Heels, but he was pleased with the team’s performance and echoed Roy Williams’ emphasis on defense in tournament play.
“(Coach) told us that he’s never had a team that’s gone far in the tournament that wasn’t good defensively,” Maye said.
“I think we showed that tonight, and we’ve got to continue to prove it.”