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The Daily Tar Heel

Tar Heels’ defense evolving as tournament ?nal looms

A 32-point loss isn’t usually included in a discussion of a team’s increased effort level.

But that’s exactly what point guard Larry Drew II wanted to talk about when asked why North Carolina has shown more emotion and passion in this year’s NIT than during the regular season.

That defeat, an 82-50 shellacking at Duke, broke through whatever barrier stood between UNC and the message of coach Roy Williams.

“Things just kind of clicked in for us — snapped, I guess — especially after that Duke game,” Drew said. “It was a certain feeling that we got, knowing that we haven’t been playing as well. I felt like we let a lot of people down, ourselves included.”

Earning back that trust has taken the form of an increased level of ferocity on the defensive end.

Diving for loose balls has become the norm. Blocked shots await any opposing guard hoping to sneak into the lane for an easy two. And a sense of urgency for the full 40 minutes has cut down on defensive lapses.

Together, those have transformed UNC from the worst scoring defense in the ACC to a stingy unit that’s earned its way in the NIT finals.

In the Tar Heels’ four games in the postseason tournament, they haven’t allowed an opponent to shoot better than 42 percent from the field.

“I guess everything Coach was talking about finally got through to us and sunk in,” Deon Thompson said. “Getting after loose balls and all the little things we didn’t do all season. Now that we’re doing those things, we’re finding some wins in the win column.”

That defensive focus comes in handy during poor shooting nights like Tuesday. UNC shot only 35 percent in that one. Dominating numbers on the glass — the Tar Heels grabbed 60 rebounds to Rhode Island’s 45 — were enough to nudge them to victory.

“Learning involves teaching and absorbing, and the other part is putting into action. We haven’t changed our coaching style; we kept trying to emphasize,” Williams said. “I kept saying I have to find a way to get them to do that. I still don’t know what we did except they do have it a lot better right now.”

UNC’s final test this season will come against a Dayton team that earned its way to the title game the same way the Tar Heels did.

The Flyers hassled Ole Miss into 34 percent shooting in the semifinals en route to a 68-63 win, and they did it from contributions across their roster — 11 Dayton players saw action.

Only two Flyers average double figures in scoring for the season, but they all possess a high level of athleticism Williams is having trouble preparing his team for.

“Their pace of play is impressive. Substitutions are impressive. I substitute a lot, but they substitute a heck of a lot more than we do,” Williams said. “They have some youngsters that are extremely athletic, extremely quick. It is impossible to simulate it.”

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