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The Daily Tar Heel

FILM REVIEW: The play call that saved the season for UNC men's basketball

North Carolina forward Isaiah Hicks (4) goes up for a lay in against Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Greenville on Sunday.
North Carolina forward Isaiah Hicks (4) goes up for a lay in against Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Greenville on Sunday.

This is our seventh men's basketball installment of Film Review, where we break down a particular aspect of the action to help you better understand what's happening on the court. Here's where to find our previous pieces from the football and men's basketball season.

When Arkansas’ Jaylen Barford scored a layup to put the Razorbacks up 65-60 with 3:28 remaining in the second half of Sunday’s game, it wasn't hyperbole to say the North Carolina men's basketball team was staring at the end of its season. In the second round of the NCAA Tournament, UNC — a No. 1 seed and the ACC regular-season champion — was on the brink of elimination.

At that point,’s win probability chart gave the Tar Heels a 21.1 percent chance of winning.

You know how it ends, though. North Carolina ripped off a 12-0 run over the final 2:56 of the game, holding the Razorbacks scoreless on their final six possessions: 0-for-4 on field goals, 0-for-2 at the free-throw line and a turnover at the end.

The defensive intensity ramped up and UNC found a way to win. But the Tar Heels also dialed up one of their best offensive play calls during the beginning of the run.

Isaiah Hicks starts with the ball at the top of the key. UNC is down three points, 65-62, and the clock is quickly approaching two minutes. He swings the ball to Justin Jackson on the left wing and then trots over to set a pick for the junior.

Behind him, Kennedy Meeks comes to set a second screen. His man, sitting in the middle of the paint, has to come up with Meeks to prepare for the screen.

This looks like a standard UNC set. The Tar Heels’ offense is fairly structured and as the game draws to a close, opponents sometimes think they know what is coming in a half-court set.

In this case, every Arkansas player and coach is thinking about the threat of Jackson’s 3-point shot. Both Razorback big men are taking an extra step or two toward the 3-point line, ready to get a hand up to contest a long-range attempt.

This leaves an opening, though, in the paint. Hicks was never going to set a hard screen. His goal the entire time was to draw his defender out, read the defense and then slip and dive into the paint.

The red sea parted, Jackson dropped a great pass to Hicks and the senior forward did the rest.

That’s a big time finish by Hicks, sure. But the play call made the play. North Carolina’s coaching staff expertly leveraged Jackson’s shooting ability — and the game situation — into two of the easiest points UNC scored in the game.

Late in the game, Arkansas’ big men continually took an extra step out to defend the ball handler and long-range shooting threats in pick and rolls. This strategy was necessary because of how big of a threat Jackson’s 3-point shot is. UNC was also down three — one triple and the Tar Heels would have tied the game.

But the Tar Heels, especially Jackson, stayed disciplined to the scheme. He made an excellent pass to Hicks instead of just chucking up another three.

Meeks’ second screen also made the play. Take a look at the second image in the series again.

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If Meeks doesn’t come set that screen, or doesn’t set it with any vigor, his man would have never come up to the 3-point line. Instead, he took just enough steps forward to give Hicks the angle at the basket.

Once Hicks slipped the screen, there was no help defense. Weakside defenders were stuck to Theo Pinson and Joel Berry, hanging out on the 3-point line opposite the play. And Meeks’ man was manipulated just enough by the scheme to be late in disrupting the play.

After Hicks’ dunk, North Carolina’s win probability in the chart jumped back up to 45 percent. After two Hicks free throws with 1:44 left, North Carolina retook the lead. UNC’s win probability jumped above 50 percent and the rest was history.

"C.B. McGrath, one of my assistants, had made a suggestion earlier, and I'd remembered what he said," head coach Roy Williams said. "So when we had a stoppage of play for something I told him, next time we run secondary — run secondary break slip, and that's when Isaiah got the basket (that) made it 65-64.”

Tar Heel fans should thank McGrath and “secondary break slip,” because that play call and the execution of it saved North Carolina’s season.