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UNC men's basketball raising defensive intensity ahead of Final Four

North Carolina wing Theo Pinson (1) attempts to swat the ball away from Kentucky guard D'Aaron Fox (0) in their Elite Eight matchup in Memphis on Sunday.

North Carolina wing Theo Pinson (1) attempts to swat the ball away from Kentucky guard D'Aaron Fox (0) in their Elite Eight matchup in Memphis on Sunday.

Luke Maye’s shot will go down in the history books, and rightfully so. But the North Carolina men’s basketball team’s stifling defense is to thank for its second straight Final Four appearance.

Kentucky guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk were neutralized by smart cross-matches orchestrated by the Tar Heel coaching staff. Theo Pinson opened the game on Fox, who finished with 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Justin Jackson’s length and effort slowed down Monk just enough. And Joel Berry, hobbled and thus the weakest perimeter defender, hid on Isaiah Briscoe.

Kennedy Meeks controlled the inside and picked a good night to set a career high 17 rebounds. He even added four blocks. Bam Adebayo, the Wildcats’ vaunted big man, finished with 13 points on 4-of-10 shooting from the field.

“Our main objective coming into the game was to play them straight up, wall when you got the ball inside and try to do our best job of boxing him out,” Meeks said after Sunday’s 75-73 win. “Because (Adebayo) is a strong guy and does a tremendous job of hitting the boards. As the big man, I think we did a tremendous job of executing that game plan.”

UNC held Kentucky to 41.5 percent field-goal shooting and one point per possession. It was an all-around great defensive performance against a dangerous and talented offensive team.

“Our rotations were great,” Jackson said. “Our bigs were extremely active, especially Kennedy. And so when we have rotations like that, kind of covering up for maybe the mistakes that your teammate had on defense, that makes us that much better of a defensive team.”

North Carolina has been great at times earlier in the 2016-17 season. In the Maui Invitational title game against Wisconsin, the Tar Heels held the Badgers to 0.84 points per possession. Against N.C. State at home on Jan. 8, the Wolfpack could manage only 0.66 points per possession.

In the minutiae of nonconference play or even the ACC regular season, breakdowns are commonplace. It’s part of playing a 32-game regular season and having a wide margin of error. But now that it’s March, every UNC player knows to turn the defensive dial up to 10.

“When you see somebody driving now, all five guys are reacting instead of just a couple and then two of them just looking at the play,” Pinson said. “And I think that’s a big factor on how much better we’ve gotten defensively.”

The Tar Heels know what it takes to defend well — they did it last year. Head coach Roy Williams will sometimes bring this up as motivation to this year’s team.

“He never really mentions anything about the run that we had, other than the defensive part of it,” Jackson said. “He brings in the fact that we really locked in defensively down the stretch last year.”

North Carolina is up to 17th in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating, which measures points allowed per 100 possessions adjusted for opponent. UNC was 21st at the end of last season.

After showing flashes of greatness throughout the season, North Carolina is morphing into a championship defense. And the transition couldn’t come at a better time, with a Final Four matchup against Oregon on Saturday.

“We still have some things we could do better,” Jackson said. “But Butler and Kentucky, those were probably two of our best defensive games. At the end of the day, why not be your best at the end?”

@bauman_john

sports@dailytarheel.com

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