North Carolina’s recent renaissance has coincided with Coach Roy Williams’s switch to a four-guard lineup, which has wreaked defensive havoc since P.J. Hairston joined the starters seven games ago. The Tar Heels are 6-1 in that span, the most recent win a thorough 79-68 dispatching of Maryland on Wednesday night, when North Carolina’s undersize rotation once again triumphed over the Terps’ size.
Maryland center Alex Len finished with eight points and seven rebounds, but was 1 of 4 from the field and 0 for 2 from the free throw line in the second half. Because of matchup issues, Shaquille Cleare played just four minutes, none after halftime. Charles Mitchell logged just 14 minutes (two points, four rebounds), while James Padgett tacked on nine points (4-of-6 shooting) and seven rebounds on his Senior Night.
“We didn’t have much of a low-post game,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “They doubled the post. We got good looks. We have to knock them down.”
Len iterated a similar sentiment, saying he wasn’t particularly frustrated by North Carolina’s double-teams because, from his vantage point, he could pass out of them. The biggest offensive issue was Maryland’s 13 percent performance on three-pointers, the fifth time this season it has shot worse than 20 percent (against Kentucky, George Mason, North Carolina State and North Carolina twice).
“When I catch the ball, they’re just doubling and I kick it back. I don’t see any problems with it,” Len said.
Still, Turgeon knew that something had to give against North Carolina’s small lineup, which started just one player – forward James Michael McAdoo – taller than 6 feet 8. Either the Terps would impose their low-post will early, forcing Williams to turn to a relatively inexperienced front court in compensation, or North Carolina’s half-court speed and unpredictability would create matchup nightmares for Maryland.
With Hairston (22 points) and Reggie Bullock (19 points and 12 rebounds) leading the way, it wound up being the latter.
“They don’t run many sets,” Dez Wells said. “They have a freelance kind of offense. That’s harder to guard than sets. You can scout sets and know where people are going to be and how you’re going to guard it, but with a freelance, motion offense it’s kind of hard. It’s free. They set screens whenever they want to and on whoever they want to, and they play really good off screens.
“So that’s really tough to guard. But we did a really good job guarding it. They got a little more transition points than we wanted to give up, but that’s something we did really, really good in the stretch where we came back in the second half.”
Indeed, when the Terps finally went small, they wreaked some sparse full-court havoc, forcing two straight turnovers from Marcus Paige that ignited a quick five-point run and capped off an 11-2 burst over 56 seconds. Turgeon’s press has been a mixed bag this season, however. It doomed them at Georgia Tech and Boston College, but breathed just enough life to keep them around a little longer against the Tar Heels.
“I know everyone gets caught up in that,” Turgeon said. “It’s easy to come back, guys. When you’re down 16, you’re just playing loose and that kind of stuff. To come back and win is different. Did the press help us? Yeah. It gave us a chance. I just don’t think that’s the answer. I just don’t think it’s the answer. We pressed Georgia Tech and it killed us. We press at Boston College, it killed us. Killed us. So I don’t think it’s the answer. But what we did tonight was we let our offense affect our defense and we didn’t guard well enough. We just didn’t guard well enough. We have to guard better than that.”