NEW YORK – With one minute and fifteen seconds left to play in the first half on Thursday, Carolina held a 12-point lead over Miami. But with Joel Berry (two fouls) and Theo Pinson (three) on the bench as the half came to a close, the Hurricanes scored seven straight points, including a buzzer-beating dunk by Bruce Brown, to cut the lead to five and take all the Barclays Center momentum into the half.
It wasn't just those last 75 seconds, though. The Tar Heels had rebounded just two of their misses to Miami's eight defensive rebounds, and Miami had eight second-chance points while Carolina had none. Additionally, the Hurricanes had scored six points, including those last two, off of Carolina turnovers. In Coral Gables in January, Miami overcame an early Carolina lead by switching to a zone defense en route to a 15-point victory. To avoid another upset, the Tar Heels had to adjust.
It was not a very friendly halftime in the locker room. "I was just upset with the way we had turned it over, given them the basket, the way we didn't stay in front of the guy, and the way we had given them the eight points on offensive rebounds," Roy Williams said. "So we got after them after that, because nobody emphasizes the backboards more than I do." Williams then turned the locker room over to assistant coach Steve Robinson, "so I could think of some positive things," he said.
Whatever Williams, whatever Robinson said, it worked. The Tar Heels outscored the Hurricanes by 20 points in the second half, out-rebounded them by eight and walked away with a 25-point win and a berth in the ACC Tournament semifinal. The commitment on the defensive end, the willingness to contest shots –Miami made just nine of 30 second-half field goal attempts– and the focus on the backboards allowed the Tar Heels to cruise.
Senior forward Isaiah Hicks had another brilliant performance on Thursday, following up his 21 points and 9 rebounds against Duke last weekend with 19 points and six rebounds. Hicks made his first five shots on a 5-7 shooting night and was a perfect 9-9 from the free throw line, while hauling in six rebounds and committing just a single foul. Staying focused on the game allowed the thoughtful young man from Oxford to play to his potential. "I'd rather be on the floor not worrying about nothing, just playing," he said. "Just to have one foul in the game just allowed me to play, not worrying about nothing."
"Not worrying about anything is the better English," his coach said.
Hicks' game –and indeed the Tar Heels' final 20 minutes– was exemplified by an early second-half sequence. A Jim Larranaga time out stopped the clock with the Tar Heels up ten. Out of the break, a Miami screen forced Hicks to pick up a driving Ja'Quan Newton. Hicks stayed with Newton from the three-point line to the block. Whereas the defender might have been tempted to make contact and risk a foul on the driver, he stayed upright, hands aloft, moving his feet. Newton's weak shot attempt ended up right in Hicks' hands. He was credited with a steal, though it just as easily could have been a block. Hicks got the ball to Berry, who switched hands and flipped the defense before kicking the ball to Pinson on the wing. The junior then rewarded Hicks for running the floor. Hicks got the ball at the free throw line, took one dribble and elevated for the two-handed dunk.
In five seconds, the Tar Heels had turned defense into offense, something they did exceptionally well in the second half. They were able to get out and run by forcing six turnovers, scoring 11 points that way, and by taking 17 defensive rebounds the other way. When Miami pressed out of desperation, the Tar Heels solved it and scored against mismatches.
"We forced them into some tougher shots," Justin Jackson said of the second half. "We did a better job of keeping them in front of us, and so they were having to take shots over our hands most of the time. We did a good job of boxing out for the most part, and we were able to get out in transition from those missed shots. If you don't get a stop, you'll never have a transition opportunity. And in the second half, we did a really good job of that."
By dictating the tempo from the defensive end, the Tar Heels were able to wear down the Hurricanes. Even in their half-court offense, Carolina took advantage of tired Hurricanes, finding holes in the defense for easy baskets.
Active hands turned into turnovers, turned into run-out opportunities. Good shot defense and rebounding allowed the Tar Heels to run their secondary break and score with big men running the floor. Off they run, into the ACC Tournament semifinal.