Almost apologetically, Luke Davis assessed the lineup Carolina put on the floor to open Friday's second half against Northern Kentucky. That particular five featured Marcus Paige, Jackson Simmons, Isaiah Hicks, Desmond Hubert and Davis himself.
Other than Paige, the Tar Heels on the court were averaging a combined 4.3 points per game this season. "We're not the most offensively explosive group, to say the least," Davis said.
And yet, that five also played the best possession of the game, stoning the Norse for 35 full seconds to force a shot clock violation with 16:12 left in the game. The stop--which prompted the rare double fist pump from Roy Williams in celebration--was the culmination of 3:48 of terrific defense after the head coach juggled his starters for the second half.
Sure, as Davis said, the Tar Heels weren't explosive, and scored just five points over those four minutes. But they didn't allow a single point, and teams don't lose very often when the opponent doesn't score.
"Putting those five guys in to start the second half, I thought they gave us a tremendous lift defensively," Williams said. "They did some really good things for us. They sort of turned it around."
The turnaround began in the halftime locker room. "Coach (Hubert) Davis had a comment at halftime that hit home for me," Davis said. "He talked about how any of the coaches would give anything to put on a Carolina jersey and be able to play. That really hit me, that that was exactly what I was able to do. It was about not wasting an opportunity."
The opportunity arrived while the Tar Heels were shooting around before the second half began, as assistant coach C.B. McGrath notified the reserves they'd be starting the final 20 minutes.
There were some offensive highlights, like a nifty Hubert pass to Hicks, who was hustling down the floor and was rewarded with a dunk.
But the real showcase was the shot clock violation, a full 35 seconds in which Northern Kentucky took only two dribbles inside the three-point line.
It began with Simmons and Davis perfectly communicating and executing on a ball screen at the top of the key. Then Simmons and Hicks communicated and flawlessly switched a screen off the ball, preventing any easy passes. Paige fought around a screen on the wing, and Hubert and Davis combined to thwart a back cut.
By that point, the shot clock was at ten seconds, and the Norse hadn't been inside the three-point line yet. Paige had the ballhandler pinned in front of the Northern Kentucky bench, due partially to a good denial from Hicks, who made the extra effort to get into the passing lane near the top of the key to prevent what would have been an easy perimeter pass.
Hubert moved his feet and cut off a baseline drive, and Paige defended a desperation heave without fouling as the shot clock buzzer sounded.
"We stopped the easy change of sides, we denied, we kept our man in front of us," Hicks said. "It's more of a mental thing. We wanted that stop, so we went out there and got it."
That's almost exactly what Williams was telling the regular starters on the sideline. As soon as the horn blared to signify the violation, he took a couple purposeful steps down the sideline in front of his bench. "That's how you play defense," he told his team. "It's not that hard."
He chose that moment to remove the four substitutes, who had pitched a shutout over the first 3:48 of the second half. Williams rewarded them with individual handshakes for each player as they took a seat.
"You never see that," said Davis.
The lineup that couldn't shoot straight managed to play the most coach-pleasing 35 seconds of the game. Paige, who had been on the floor in the first half for some of the defensive struggles and was also on the court for the shot clock violation, knew what that meant.
"It takes a lot more than physical gifts to play defense," he said. "You have to want to. If you're guarding the ball, it doesn't matter how quick or athletic you are. If you don't get in a stance and have the desire to stop the opponent, it's not going to go well. With that five, we just decided to buckle down and take them out of what they like to do."
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.