That game has been in the back of his mind as the Tar Heels prepare to face Duke on Saturday.
“It’s a lot of motivation because I know I could have really done a lot more out there,” Johnson said. “The first (game) I just couldn’t stay out there, every time I’d get back out there I’d pick up another foul and be right back on the bench.”
Arguably Carolina's best frontcourt duo is Johnson at center playing alongside James Michael McAdoo at power forward. Johnson scores more than the defensive-minded Desmond Hubert and is better defensively on the perimeter than Kennedy Meeks and Joel James. But Johnson's presence was largely absent in the first matchup with Duke.
Johnson entered the game at the 16:37 mark of the first half. Just 11 seconds in, he was whistled for his first foul. (Granted, Duke’s Jabari Parker would have probably received a fine in the NBA for flopping, but Johnson was called for a charge.)
Another 38 seconds, another foul. This time Johnson was a little too lackadaisical while receiving the ball so far out from the basket. Marcus Paige threw it to Johnson as a way to break pressure and Johnson seemed surprised that Marshall Plumlee still stepped out to defend despite being 30 feet from the basket. Plumlee stripped the ball and in trying to recover it, Johnson was whistled for a reaching foul.
With two fouls, Johnson sat out six minutes before re-entering the game with 9:09 left in the first half. Left isolated guarding Parker on the perimeter, Johnson picked up his third foul for a hand check as Parker drove to the basket. Johnson sat the remaining six minutes of the first half.
Johnson picked up his fourth foul in the second half after leaving Plumlee to attempt to block a shot. It led to three Duke offensive rebounds due to Carolina players out of position to box out. Johnson tried to stay out of the fray on Plumlee’s shot and a Parker tip before reaching in on Parker’s second shot. Johnson was on the court all of 2:04 minutes before heading back to the bench.
Johnson fouled out with 1:56 to go, again after finding himself guarding Parker on a drive to the basket.
Johnson’s five points against the Blue Devils snapped his string of five consecutive games of scoring in double figures, though he did manage to have six rebounds in just 14 minutes. The game and his performance leave him wanting much more when the Tar Heels travel to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday for the rematch.
During the Tar Heels’ 12-game winning streak, Paige is averaging 17.1 points and shooting 45.8 percent from 3-point range. He has been Carolina’s leading scorer and has had just five games this season when he was kept from reaching double figures.
He’s now had back-to-back games under 10 after the Irish limited him to 2-of-8 shooting from the floor and just 1-of-5 from behind the arc. (Paige was 3-of-7 from the field for nine points against Virginia Tech.)
“He knows his team needs him sometimes and they do a great job of running stuff for him ball-screening or stagger-screening,” Brey said. “That’s why we went diamond-and-1 just so somebody else takes the shot. [Nate] Britt took two of them and I’m going to live with that and he made them.”
Paige has seen tailored defenses before. Back in nonconference play, Texas ran a triangle-and-2 on him and Leslie McDonald, daring the Heels to shoot from outside. Even teams that primarily play man-to-man have spliced in use of zone against Carolina.
“If you look at our percentages, we’re not a good 3-point shooting team,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Really, it’s the first time in 26 years coaching I’ve ever been concerned about a zone. I always loved it when teams played zone because we had great movement and we could shoot the crap out of the ball. Zone never bothered us. This year, people think that’s the way to play us.”
Carolina has become more effective against zone defenses, starting with its shooting. In the last eight games, J.P. Tokoto is shooting 56.9 percent from the field and is averaging 11.2 points.
His 7-for-11 performance against N.C. State helped carry the Heels during the stretches when Paige wasn’t on. Tokoto was also 5-for-5 against the Irish.
Better passing has also helped. The Heels had assists on 17 of their 25 made baskets against Notre Dame.
They will need to continue to do both well against zones if they expect to continue their winning streak throughout March.
ESPN.com reporters Eamonn Brennan, Mryon Medcalf and C.L. Brown join host Chantel Jennings to discuss the biggest bubble battles, Kansas without Joel Embiid, legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith’s health and more from the last week of the regular season.
Freshman guard Nate Britt said they don’t want to become overly dependent on trying to win late.
Britt said the Heels still have work to do.
Their 12-game winning streak is the longest since the 2008-09 national title team reeled off 13 consecutive victories. But they have now had three straight close shaves against teams with losing records in league play (NC State 8-9, Notre Dame 6-12, Virginia Tech 2-14).
“That’s three or four in a row against teams we are capable of beating by a better margin than we have,” sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. “And that’s no knock on them, but we’ve been playing really well lately. If we have big goals and dreams, we can’t have all these sluggish games. We’ve been fortunate to be on the winning side on all of them, so it’s not too big of a concern.”
Sophomore forward Brice Johnson said the Heels have had a tendency to lose focus in the middle of games. Against the Irish, that meant no longer pounding the ball inside, which is what helped get them a 15-point lead in the first half.
“We were doing well, then all of a sudden we were going away from what we do well,” Johnson said. “On the defensive end we weren’t paying attention to detail and stuff like that. … The pick-and-rolls really hurt us. We just have to go back and re-evaluate what we need to do. We have to keep it going from the first half to the second half.”
Aside from executing, the Heels just seemed to lack desire at times. Coach Roy Williams said after Monday’s 63-61 win over Notre Dame that the team was more intense during its last practice than it was during the game.
The stat that most reveals their lapse was in second-chance points. The Heels used six offensive rebounds for 12 second-chance points in the first half against the Irish. They didn’t have any second-chance baskets in the second half.
“We’ve talked about the need to pick it up, especially the intensity level the last few games. That’s just something we’re trying to work on right now,” Britt said. “The last games have been close and we could have played a whole lot better.”
Stats in the clutch (last five minutes of second half/OT with the score within five points): 1.13 points per play, 5 assists, 2 turnovers
Napier has been one of the best players in college basketball this season. He has to do so many things for UConn, accounting for more than 40 percent of the Huskies' points thus far. He's also the team's best defender. However, what I like about him the most is his ability to come through when the game is on the line.
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We’re just two weeks away from the start of the NCAA tournament. And we still have some legitimate questions about a few squads, right?
Well, here are eight teams that you shouldn’t trust yet:
North Carolina: The Tar Heels made some great plays to finish Notre Dame in a 63-61 win on Monday and extend their winning streak to 12 games. But they entered the second half with a 14-point lead against a Fighting Irish team with a 6-12 record in ACC play. That’s just North Carolina basketball. That stretch illustrated their entire season. Always up for the top dogs, always vulnerable against the rest. This team might show up and make a remarkable run in the Big Dance. But don’t be surprised if they don’t get past the first weekend, either.
Texas: The truth about Texas is that Rick Barnes’ program has been overachieving for months. The Longhorns have lost three of their past four, although all three losses came on the road against ranked teams. This is a squad that’s hovering around the 50s in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings. The Longhorns have had issues with turnovers. Javan Felix is enduring a tremendous 16-for-48 slump. Isaiah Taylor looks like a freshman. But Texas has wins over North Carolina, Iowa State and Kansas because it has found ways to play to its potential in tough matchups. Texas is a good team on its best nights and a really sloppy, poor-shooting, turnover-prone assembly on its worst nights.
Oklahoma State: In its past four games, Oklahoma State has been reborn. This four-game winning streak (victories over Texas Tech, TCU, Kansas and Kansas State) has been orchestrated by a desperate team that’s making a strong push for an at-large bid. If the Pokes make the field of 68, they’ll be only the second team since tourney expansion in 1985 to reach the Big Dance after enduring a seven-game losing streak, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Remember that losing streak? Remember the Oklahoma State team that struggled for about three weeks? Maybe everything is different now with Marcus Smart back. Travis Ford’s program has played well in recent matchups. But let’s see if it lasts.
Cincinnati: Cincinnati possesses one of America’s most impenetrable defenses. Only 11 of its 29 opponents thus far have scored 60 or more. There’s just one problem. The Bearcats (129th in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy) can’t score. Sean Kilpatrick is a dynamic player, but it’s clear that he’s also Mick Cronin’s only reliable scoring option in clutch situations. When he’s on, Cincinnati usually finds enough offense to compete with the best teams in the country. When he’s off (18-for-60 in the team’s past three losses), Cincy is an unstable operation. Can the Bearcats beat the best teams in America? Yes, they’ve proven that. But few teams rely so heavily on one player’s production to reach their ceiling.
Wichita State: This is probably unfair. Wichita State’s limited competition in the Missouri Valley Conference and throughout its nonconference slate (BYU, Tennessee and Saint Louis are its best wins), however, demands it. The Shockers were in the Final Four last year, and this team seems equally capable of making another run. Fred Van Vleet is one of America’s best point guards. Gregg Marshall also has Tekele Cotton, Ron Baker, Cleanthony Early and a bunch of glue guys. That’s a good formula for a repeat. But the naysayers can’t be dismissed. Wichita State, in terms of national perception, still has something to prove in the Big Dance. A run in the NCAA tournament would add another layer of validation to Wichita State’s 31-0 record. But beyond that, we need to see Wichita State face an opponent that’s in the top 50 of the RPI because the MVC (Indiana State is 74th) doesn’t have one outside Wichita, Kan.
Iowa: Which Iowa will show up in the NCAA tournament? It’s not clear. Fran McCaffery clearly has his best roster in Iowa City, but he also commands a program that can’t seem to get out of its own way in critical moments. Roy Devyn Marble & Co. have already proven their worth in wins against Ohio State and Michigan, but the Hawkeyes also have looked like the same team that hasn’t been able to finish tight games in recent years. And their defense hasn’t been impressive in weeks. This stretch of three losses in four games has created some suspense about the Selection Sunday fate of a team that should be a unanimous lock for the NCAA tourney by now. The Hawkeyes should get into the field, but they haven’t exactly looked like a squad that will do much if they do secure a berth.
Saint Louis: Jim Crews’ squad has been a defensive force all season. The Billikens are fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. And they’ve only lost four games this season. It’s not like teams are praying that Saint Louis ends up in their region, but in these past two games, losses to Duquesne and VCU, the Billikens have committed 33 turnovers combined. They’ve recorded turnovers on nearly one of five possessions (18.4 percent, 169th, per Ken Pomeroy) this season. For a team with a mediocre offense, its margin for offensive error is slim. And that’s what we’ve learned in the past week about Saint Louis. Definitely a dangerous team. But it’s also a program that could be hindered by its offensive inconsistency and questionable ballhandling.
Kentucky: Well, this didn’t work. Kentucky entered the season as one of the most hyped squads in college basketball history. The Wildcats had everything, it seemed. Julius Randle & Co. were supposed to be another great Kentucky team. Now look at the Wildcats, who lost to South Carolina over the weekend. You definitely can’t trust them. But this is still a team with a bunch of guys who could be NBA millionaires in a matter of months. Yes, a win over Louisville is the only major accomplishment on Kentucky’s resume. The Wildcats are ranked only because they’re the Wildcats. Who have they defeated? And yet, no coach in America wants to play this disjointed group of talent that might figure it out in the Big Dance.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina’s 63-61 win over Notre Dame is not the way head coach Roy Williams prefers his victories. The Tar Heels scored just nine points in the first 10 minutes of the second half and made just nine field goals.
Fortunately for Williams, his team isn’t just about scoring. The Heels are just as likely to win a game like Monday night's by getting stops as they are by getting buckets.
“I’ve said it before to have a really good team you’ve got to win some of those games ugly, you’re not going to be perfect every night,” Williams said. “We’ve been good enough in times past to impose our will on other people and we haven’t done that with this team, but we’ve competed hard enough and well enough to sneak in there 12 times in a row anyway.”
Williams said he was tired of winning games ugly, but it’s been the way Carolina has gotten it done of late. Marcus Paige and J.P. Tokoto made up for the rest of the team struggling offensively against NC State. The Heels also had a tougher than expected four-point win Saturday at last-place Virginia Tech.
Paige said style points don’t matter at this time of the year, the Heels just have to be able to find a way to win heading into the postseason.
“That’s going to come in handy maybe later on down the stretch in a tournament game when it’s a hostile environment, both teams are playing well and you still have to find a way to win,” Paige said. “That’s the most important thing. Are you tough enough to find a way to win? Are you tough enough to get a stop? We got multiple stops, a couple big blocks, came up with loose balls, that’s why we won the game.”
There were no second-half scoring heroics for Paige against the Irish. The Heels’ leading scorer with a penchant for scoring outbursts after halftime was held to a season-low seven points on 2-of-8 shooting.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey used a diamond-and-1 defense to effectively keep Paige from getting open looks.
“At the seven-, eight-minute mark in the huddles we were like, ‘He’s going to start to go now,’” Brey said. “We saw what he did to NC State -- that was off the charts. We did a pretty good job of making somebody else beat us.”
Paige, who scored the game-winning layup to cap a career-high 35 points against NC State last week, still found a way to beat the Irish at the buzzer. He did it defensively by providing the game-clinching block on Eric Atkins’ drive to the basket with one second left.
Paige had all of five blocks the entire season. But he left Notre Dame guard Steve Vasturia, who was 2-of-6 from 3-point range, alone in the corner to help out.
“You could kind of see it in Atkins’ eyes that he was taking it and keeping it all the way to the basket,” Paige said. “So I just went all the way in and made that choice that I was going to try to defend the rim instead of giving them a 3. And I guess I guessed right. He tried to lay it up and I was there.”
During the second half Williams was upset with the way Leslie McDonald and Tokoto were playing defensively and took them out. But the Heels got a boost from an unlikely lineup combination that included freshmen Nate Britt and Isaiah Hicks along with reserve center Desmond Hubert to help cool off Notre Dame’s hot streak.
Notre Dame began the second half shooting 9-of-13 from the field as it rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit to take a 49-48 lead. In the final 10 minutes, the Tar Heels limited the Irish to 5-of-13 shooting. Carolina held them without a field goal for nearly an eight-minute span that lasted until 5:20 remained.
“I can’t say enough good things about what they did during that stretch,” James Michael McAdoo said. “Me and Nate talking on the ball screens, Isaiah getting out and denying and Desmond being kind of a quarterback out there and just helping everybody get to where they need to be. They definitely were huge for us.”
Paige added that Carolina’s 12th straight win heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale at Duke was huge too, no matter the manner in which the Heels won.
“Finding ways to win is important in March,” Paige said. “We didn’t play as well as we’d like to but we still found a way to win.”
The Gators (27-2), who are on a school-record 21-game winning streak, were a solid No. 1 on Monday, receiving 46 first-place votes from the 65-member national media panel.
Wichita State (31-0), the first team since Saint Joseph's in 2004 to enter its conference tournament undefeated, was No. 1 on 14 ballots, and Arizona (27-2), which was ranked No. 1 for eight weeks earlier this season, got the other five first-place votes.
Duke moved up two spots to fourth while Virginia, which won its first outright ACC title since 1981, jumped from 12th to fifth. The Cavaliers are in the top 10 for the first time since the 2001-02 season.
The last time the Cavaliers won the outright ACC title, they featured three-time national player of the year Ralph Sampson, were in the top 10 the entire season, spent four weeks at No. 1 and reached the Final Four.
Virginia was No. 24 in this season's preseason Top 25 and fell to 25th in the first week of the regular season. The Cavaliers dropped out of the poll the next week and didn't return until four weeks ago at No. 20. They've moved up every week since.
Other seasons have been noteworthy, starting with the 2005 and 2009 national championship teams. Even though Carolina was built to win in both seasons, it’s not easy to deliver especially when you’re supposed to win. (Shoutout to John Calipari and the 40-0 Wildcats.)
Before this season, I would have leaned toward the job Williams did in 2005-06. That roster was depleted following the 2005 national title. That team had little experience; Reyshawn Terry and David Noel were the only upperclassmen of note. Williams at times started three freshmen, including Bobby Frasor starting every game at point guard.
What Williams has already accomplished this season blows that away. He probably won’t be recognized for it. Virginia’s Tony Bennett will likely collect the ACC Coach of the Year award for leading the Cavs to their first outright title since 1981. But that can’t overshadow what Williams has done. He has adapted more times this season than he ever has.
Williams has mixed in the use of zone defense more this season than he ever has. It’s true that the rule emphasis on allowing freedom of movement made it easier for dribble penetration, so many anti-zone coaches have used it some this season. Early in the season, Williams used a 3-2 drop zone. He saved the 1-3-1 zone he hadn’t used all season until just the right time against Duke to turn the game in the Heels’ favor.
Williams also has been able to win despite noticeable flaws. Carolina ranks near the bottom of Division I in made 3-pointers. Its 62.6 free throw percentage could set a new low in school history.
The biggest reason why I believe it’s his best coaching job is how he adapted without the best player on the roster. Take away Jabari Parker from Duke or Tyler Ennis from Syracuse and it would be hard to imagine the Blue Devils or Orange posting a 5-1 record against ranked teams.
Carolina has been able to make up for the fact that P.J. Hairston is not on this team. Without Hairston on the roster, Williams has had to keep reinventing the Heels during the season.
There was the preseason version that included Hairston and Leslie McDonald being key perimeter players. Williams maintained that he thought their status would be rectified before the regular season started. Because it wasn’t, the first incarnation of the Heels looked like a team bound for the NIT after its loss to Belmont.
Williams had confidence all along that Marcus Paige could become a big scorer. He repeatedly said so last season even while Paige struggled with his shot. Williams moving Paige off the ball and going with Nate Britt at point guard proved genius for two reasons. It allowed Paige to develop a scorer’s mindset that he has carried over even after moving back to point guard. It forced Britt to gain experience he otherwise might not have received.
Nine games in, McDonald’s reinstatement and the decision not to seek it for Hairston brought along the next version of the Heels. This was the messiest part of the season, but without it, the Heels might not be sitting where they are now. Carolina went 4-5 while adjusting to McDonald being back and the changing lineup.
Williams endured a 0-3 start to ACC play without losing the locker room. At its lowest point, he got the team to start believing in defense and playing with a greater sense of urgency. The tweaks he made launched the Heels toward their current win streak.
Carolina hasn’t lost since Williams moved McDonald and Kennedy Meeks into the starting lineup. Their 11-game ACC winning streak is the longest during Williams’ tenure in regular-season conference play. (The 2007-08 team won eight games to close the regular season and three in the league tournament.)
The newest version of the Heels, the one that’s back ranked in the top 20, looks like a team that could make a deep tournament run. And Williams is the main reason why.
When we analyze and evaluate the skill set of today's basketball player, we speak quite often about their ability to drive to the rim and finish as well as knocking down 3-point shots.
What has been forgotten and not emphasized enough from coaches and workout coaches is their middle game. The ability to score the ball inside the arc and before one gets to the rim in tight quarters is a true gift. I would love to see today's player really work on their middle game to be a more well-rounded scorer.
Let's take a look at which ESPN 100 prospects possess the all-important middle game in the senior class.
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