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The Daily Tar Heel

Defensive Turnaround Keys Win Streak

But it wasn't funny the day it happened. North Carolina got bombed by Kentucky on Dec. 2, 2000 -- at home. The unranked Wildcats shot 50.7 percent from the field, beat the Tar Heels up and down the court at will and defeated them 93-76.

Players sat in silence in the UNC locker room. They pointed out that Kentucky hadn't been making its shots in previous games, which was correct.

But there was more to it than North Carolina catching the Wildcats on a hot day. Kentucky got all the open looks it wanted against UNC's matchup zone and crashed the glass for 17 offensive rebounds when its open shots didn't go down.

It was an embarrassing defensive effort, and UNC coach Matt Doherty apologized for it to his team's fans. He vowed that the Tar Heels would improve.

Twelve consecutive wins show that Doherty was right. UNC (15-2, 5-0 in the ACC) ranked fifth in the nation in field-goal percentage defense entering last week's action, limiting its opponents to 37.5-percent shooting.

"We're miles from where we were on defense against Kentucky," UNC center Brendan Haywood said after the Tar Heels defeated Clemson 92-65 on Wednesday. "Defense is the key. If we keep playing defense like this, we're going to make some noise come March."

The reasons for UNC's drastic improvement on the defensive end are many.

Perhaps most important among them is the difference in the team's personnel. The Tar Heels battled the Wildcats without point guard Ronald Curry and forward Julius Peppers, a pair of football stars who had yet to start playing for the basketball team.

But since joining the squad, the two players have brought needed energy and athleticism. UNC is 12-0 since Curry suited up and 9-0 since Peppers came aboard.

Curry has become the team's floor general and best one-on-one defender. He picks up the opponent's point guard deep in the backcourt and harasses him all the way up the court. Curry's speed enables him to stop penetration, and his thick 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame allows him to be a presence on the boards.

"He gives them a very sound defensive player on the ball as you get into your half-court offense," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "And the other thing: He sees the court really well in terms of where to help and where to drop off to help in the post, things like that that are very disruptive to the other team."

Peppers has equally good instincts for the game, but his 6-6, 270-pound body is what benefits the Tar Heels most. Doherty adds quickness to his lineup without losing any strength when he puts Peppers on the floor. Peppers has averaged 4.9 rebounds per game, including 6.7 boards in his last three contests.

The increased athleticism and depth that Curry and Peppers add have also allowed Doherty to make strategic changes on defense. North Carolina played zone most of the time during its early-season games but has since switched almost exclusively to man-to-man.

"We're so deep this year," Curry said. "We can really get after people. If you get tired, you can come out of the game, and the next man off the bench can do the same thing. We're playing nine or 10 people, and we've got guys who can play a lot of positions."

No longer can opponents swing the ball around the perimeter with ease. Led by Curry's intensity, the Tar Heels are pressuring the ball as they did under Dean Smith. They're also taking away passing lanes to the wings, which makes ball movement increasingly difficult.

"The main strategy we have is taking other teams out of their offense or making them execute their offense closer to the half-court line," UNC guard Max Owens said. "We want to make them feel uncomfortable."

The switch from zone hasn't produced the gaudy steal totals that Duke's in-your-face style generates, but it has been effective. The Tar Heels limited Wake Forest to its worst-shooting and lowest-scoring outputs of the season, and Maryland shot just 36.4 percent in its loss to UNC.

"They were more aggressive defensively," Wake Forest guard Robert O'Kelley said after his team fell

71-69 to UNC on Jan. 6. "They did the same basic things on offense, but the defensive pressure was different. They deny wings more, and I thought they did a great job."

Everyone is getting into the act. The presence of Curry and Peppers has been important, but mainstays Brendan Haywood, Jason Capel and Joseph Forte have improved since last season.

After swatting away seven shots Saturday against Florida State, Haywood became the school's all-time leading shot blocker with 246 rejections. He is UNC's insurance policy, protecting the basket and erasing any mistakes the Tar Heels make on the perimeter.

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Haywood ranks second in the ACC with 3.6 blocks per game. He is a big reason why the Tar Heels rank second in the league and ninth in the NCAA with 6.2 blocks per game.

"Brendan Haywood is much-improved," said Clemson guard Will Solomon, who was held to 17 points (five below his average) by UNC. "He's a monster in there. You go in there, and you've got to face him, and it's like a wall."

Capel has been important in UNC's defensive resurgence because of his versatility. He starts the game at small forward, and at 6-8 he joins Haywood (7-0) and Kris Lang (6-11) on one of the nation's most formidable frontcourts.

The trio combines for 20.6 of UNC's 42.0 rebounds per game, a figure that leads the ACC.

Capel plays on the perimeter in UNC's big lineup but gives Doherty flexibility by being able to shift to power forward. When the Tar Heels want to match the quickness of smaller teams or need to protect the ball in end-of-game situations, Doherty can bring in Owens for Haywood or Lang.

Capel then moves underneath, where he grabs rebounds (6.6 per game) and plays good positional defense.

That Capel plays hard on defense is no surprise. After all, his father is a coach. But what has been somewhat surprising is the defensive effort UNC has gotten from Joseph Forte, its offensive star.

Forte probably could get away with taking it easy on defense because the team needs his scoring, but he hasn't.

He bottled up Brian Wardle, Marquette's leading scorer, holding him to 5-for-16 shooting in UNC's 84-54 victory against the Golden Eagles. Forte was also the primary defender on Solomon when the Tar Heels held him to 17 points.

Doherty knows that Forte can score, so he has challenged him to improve defensively. Forte has accepted that challenge, even saying that he is taking as much pride in his defense as in his shooting.

"I'm a more complete player," Forte said. "I'm not just going out and scoring; I'm keeping other guys from scoring."

That has become the name of the game for the Tar Heels. North Carolina has shot 50 percent or better from the field 23 of the past 30 years but is hitting at only a 47.5-percent clip this season.

That drop-off has been limited to one category -- not the win column -- because of UNC's improved defense.

"It's just like we say: Defense wins championships, and offense sells tickets," Curry said. "That's what we're here for -- to play great defense.

"Every night the ball isn't going to go through the hole, but as long as we keep playing defense, we'll continue winning."

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