Sophomore guard D’Marco Dunn came off the bench soon into the first half of the North Carolina men’s basketball team's clash with Louisville.
He did not arrive in happy circumstances.
UNC was down 14-7 to a Louisville team that had previously won two games in 17 tries. Out of 363 teams in NCAA Division I men’s basketball, only two had won fewer games than Louisville entering Saturday's contest. Still, the Cardinals were initially playing better than the Tar Heels.
While on the bench, Dunn studied his team’s malaise. UNC needed energy. And it was Dunn who provided the spark to flip the game from a potential upset to a comfortable 80-59 North Carolina victory.
“The main thing I’m trying to look at is what the game is lacking,” Dunn said. “In this game, we lacked energy. We were kinda lackadaisical. Everybody wants to beat Carolina, so (Louisville) came out aggressive, and I felt like I could apply energy.”
Dunn subbed in for graduate wing Leaky Black following a play that summarized UNC’s main defensive struggle up to that point — containing the dribble drive.
The play saw Louisville senior guard El Ellis reject a ball screen and blow by Black, zooming to the basket and drawing a second foul on the reigning ACC All-Defensive Team member.
By this point, UNC head coach Hubert Davis feared Ellis was headed for a big game. Ellis did score 22 points, but when Dunn guarded Ellis, Davis said he kept Ellis from scoring without fouling him.
Davis pointed out that Dunn brought even more to the table, crashing the offensive glass and knocking down big 3-pointers to end the night with 14 points, five rebounds and two steals.
“The one thing I get on him about is to get it in gear five and keep it in gear five,” Davis said. “It’s not that he puts it in cruise control, but when he gets it into gear five, plays defense, and, offensively, does it with pace, I think he’s special.”
And as Dunn got into gear five, so did the rest of his team.
When Louisville’s athletic ball handlers attacked the basket off a ball screen, the Tar Heels were often left trailing. Newfound energy allowed the team to stick to the Cardinals’ hips without fouling.
Against Louisville’s trap defense, whichever Tar Heel was double-teamed would find a quick pass, allowing the rest of the team to attack with four players against three Cardinals. Soon enough, from 15-7 down, UNC went on a 22-7 run and eventually ended the first half with a 37-26 lead.
For most of the season, entering this type of situation is typically when things would turn sour. Despite holding halftime leads against Iowa State, Pittsburgh and Virginia, the Tar Heels dropped all three contests.
Davis’ main message at halftime, according to junior forward Puff Johnson, wasn't to protect the lead, but to extend it.
“You give any team, especially in the ACC, any type of life or confidence, they’re gonna run with it,” Johnson said. “That was a big talking point at halftime.”
The second half wasn’t perfect. UNC committed 16 fouls, struggling again to contain the dribble drive, but the Tar Heels' offense continued to beat the trap and find open shots.
When drives were contained on the other end, UNC either picked the ball handler’s pocket or anticipated when the ball handler would turn back and intercepted the pass. Eight of UNC’s 11 steals came in the second half, and Tar Heels scored 23 of their 80 points off turnovers.
UNC wasn’t guaranteed domination against a team Davis said can beat anyone on any given night. The Tar Heels had to bring energy and keep that energy high. In that respect, the team made progress.
“This is the first time we continued to play harder and build our lead throughout the second half,” Davis said. “That is growth.”
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