KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The North Carolina men’s basketball team’s first field goal of the night was a 3-pointer, as was its final field goal. But the Tar Heels were far from consistent behind the arc in between those two shots in their 78-71 win against Villanova Friday night.
After a pretty sluggish start for both teams, the Tar Heels jumped out to a 32-12 lead largely due to knocking down five of their first eight 3-point attempts. But North Carolina cooled off as quickly as it heated up.
Down the stretch, when it mattered the most, North Carolina made the shots it needed to make to pull away from Villanova and secure a spot in the round of 32.
“Well, I want to congratulate North Carolina,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They did what they do well, and we didn’t stop it like we wanted to. Eleven threes for them and four for us, I think that was the key to the game. That’s what they do. We wanted to stop it and we couldn’t.”
The outcome was what UNC was looking for, but it was certainly in doubt for a long stretch in the middle part of the game.
From the last eight minutes of the first half though the first 13 and a half minutes of the second half, the Tar Heels made just two of nine attempts from long range. That, coupled with a heightened defensive pressure from the Wildcats that forced several UNC turnovers, completely erased the 20-point that the Tar Heels built.
For the game, Villanova forced UNC into 17 turnovers — the most by the Tar Heels since turning the ball over 18 times in the loss at Texas.
“They just started getting up in us and trying to make us turn the ball over,” Reggie Bullock said. “They were throwing traps at us, and hitting the offensive glass. They were doing a good job of that. They were just trying to make us play the game that they wanted us to play.”
Though North Carolina held an eight-point lead at halftime, the Wildcats eliminated that before the first media timeout after the break. Villanova took the lead a couple of times early in the second half, but the Tar Heels wouldn’t allow the Wildcats to keep those leads very long.
“When they started pressuring us playing the 1-3-1, 1-2-2 … we got the ball and attacked it,” UNC’s leading scorer P.J. Hairston said. “We got some wide-open shots. When we were in our motion offense, I felt like we moved a lot better, opened up lanes for Dexter or Marcus — got me easy kick-outs, some wide-open threes.”
Coach Roy Williams made a wholesale substitution about four minutes into the second half to talk to his starters. When the starting five re-entered the game, they started to heat back up again.
Sitting on a seven-point lead, the Tar Heels caught fire with about six minutes to go in the ball game. They made their final six field goal attempts — four of which came from behind the 3-point line – to put the Wildcats out of reach.
“After we turned the ball over a couple times, we were able to break through the pressure, get a couple open looks,” freshman point-guard Marcus Paige said. “When Reggie and P.J. knocked down the threes back-to-back, it kind of opened it up for us.”
In the end, though he was proud of his squad’s effort, Wright knew that his Wildcats didn’t have the horses to keep up with the Tar Heels if they got hot from the outside. And that’s just what happened.
“We don’t have great quickness on this team,” Wright said. “That’s why we’ve struggled defending the three. We worked really hard on trying to prevent them from getting threes. They do a great job. They know you’re trying to stop their threes. They do a great job of making extra passes, hitting screeners for threes.”
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