by Emily Fedewa, GoHeels.com
CHAPEL HILL—For the North Carolina basketball team, defense has been an inconsistent struggle all year, but the recent four-game winning streak has shown signs of individual and team progress.
The Tar Heels are averaging the second-most forced turnovers in the ACC and that allows them to do one of the things this team does best: get out on the break and control the tempo.
Against the Terps, UNC recorded 10 steals and forced 16 turnovers, scoring 19 points off those in Carolina's 75-63 win over Maryland on Tuesday night.
Carolina played solid on defense overall for the majority of the contest, holding Maryland to 28.6 percent shooting in the first half and 39 percent for the game.
The Tar Heels all agree that defensive pressure helps them get into an even better offensive rhythm, which allows for a more complete game.
"Our defensive intensity has increased," sophomore Marcus Paige said. "It's a lot different than it was the first couple of ACC games, and that's what's allowed us to be successful."
It was no different in the Smith Center on Tuesday night - especially for sophomore Brice Johnson.
It was the second straight game that Johnson scored in double figures, but his performance against Maryland was also memorable for another reason—for the first time in his career at Carolina, and the first in the sophomore's memory, Johnson did not miss a shot, shooting a perfect 8-for-8 from the field.
"I can't remember a game, even in high school or AAU, that I didn't miss a shot. That was amazing, now that I look at it - I didn't miss a shot today," Johnson laughed. "It's great finally seeing my shot go in there. I've been working hard at trying to get my shot to go in there, so it's a big confidence builder for me."
Head coach Roy Williams pointed to a lack of production from the bench in the first half as a reason UNC gave up a 16-3 run to Maryland after getting out to an early 19-3 lead.
His coach's disappointment spurred Johnson, who picked up his scoring, along with his aggressiveness to get to the free throw line, even more after halftime. He added 11 points in the second half to finish with 19, a career high in ACC play.
"At halftime I jumped on them and I told them those guys that came into the game didn't give us anything," Williams said. "And when I put you in the game as a substitute you have to give us something positive. I didn't think we got much of a lift.
"But then I think Brice really picked us up in the second half...he was really important to us."
Johnson was humble about his performance in Tuesday's game - the forward didn't even realize he hadn't missed a shot until Williams told him after the game.
But despite his strong offensive showing in the team's final ACC regular season game against Maryland, Johnson knows that it's the improvement in his defense that is giving him a chance to produce.
"(My shot has) been there, it's just my defensive deficiencies - last year I was a defensive letdown of the team - that's what was hurting me," Johnson said. "I couldn't get in the game, Coach didn't know whether I was going to play defense or not. So just knowing that Coach has confidence in me, and knowing that I can really play defense, that can help my offensive game."
And that defensive improvement is giving his team a chance to win games.