Early in Saturday's game against Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish were on the way to one of those kinds of games.
Every Carolina fan knows the type, as the opponent gets warm from three-point distance early in the game, stays close with a barrage of three-pointers, and then ultimately closes it out from long range.
The first part proved easy for Mike Brey's Irish. They hit their first four three-pointers on the way to a 19-10 first-half lead. But then...
"We started guarding them," Marcus Paige said. "Early in the game, we were allowing them to change sides of the floor and run their offense like it was five-on-zero. Coach always says, 'Take something away.' We started pushing them out further, and J.P. (Tokoto) did a great job locking and trailing on number-24 (Pat Connaughton) to take away his momentum."
After making their first four three-pointers, Notre Dame connected on just two of their final 17 shots from beyond the arc. Connaughton, who had drained a couple of early trifectas, was zero for his final six.
"We survived their early start when they made their first four three-pointers," Roy Williams said. "After that, we were fortunate, and they missed some."
The Tar Heels were fortunate, certainly. The Irish missed a couple of good looks. But they missed more when they had a hand in their faces, or when Tokoto--for example--forced Connaughton to take a shot out of rhythm.
Quietly, that's been a pattern for Carolina this year, a program that has earned a reputation for suffering some breakdowns on perimeter defense. Under Williams, the Tar Heels haven't been as bad on three-point defense as the perception often holds, but they've generally been somewhere in the middle of the league in defensive three-point field goal percentage. Over the past five seasons, Carolina has averaged eighth in the conference in three-point percentage allowed during conference games.
This season, the Tar Heels lead the ACC in that category, as opponents are hitting just 30.5 percent from the arc, over a full percentage point better than the second-best team, Virginia, which is generally acknowledged at having one of the stingiest defenses in the nation.
The primary reason for the recent success has been a recommitment to guarding the dribbler.
"We've been working a lot on staying in front of the ball," Paige said. "We've done a great job of staying in front on defense so guys aren't always having to scramble or get into a rotation."
That's easier against a team like Notre Dame, which usually had two, at most, shooters on the court. The challenge will be different against Duke, which comes into Wednesday's game at the Smith Center shooting an incredible 43.0 percent from the three-point line in ACC games. The Blue Devils always have at least three dangerous shooters on the floor, and usually four. Last year at the Smith Center, they hit five-of-nine first-half three-pointers, led by guard Seth Curry making his first seven shots, on the way to a 42-24 advantage at the break.
Tokoto, who has had several challenging individual matchups recently, is maturing into the type of defender Williams hoped he would be. The sophomore's athleticism, frame and quickness enable him to cover a variety of offensive threats. But no matter who he covers, that still leaves multiple defensive matchups in which guarding the perimeter will be key.
"They really spread the floor and have a lot of guys shooting three-point shots," Williams said at his radio show Monday night. "The first thing you have to do is do a good job guarding the ball so you don't have to help, because that's what they do-they dribble penetrate, suck you in and then they throw it out to a three-point shooter. The second thing is you've got to close out on the shooters, challenge the shot, and some of your bigger guys have to get out on the floor, too."
Under Williams, the Tar Heels have sometimes tweaked their usual defensive principles against Duke. In past seasons, they've occasionally switched all screens, and they've also changed help responsibilities at times. All of those options will be possibilities this year for a stern defensive test against a potent offensive club with the potential to light up the scoreboard from distance.
"They're really a big-time club," Williams said, "and that's the biggest problem they present."
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.