Lucas: Doing It With Defense
Release: 02/20/2013

By Adam Lucas

ATLANTA--Well, this looks like the same old thing. Just look at this box score.

P.J. Hairston: 4-of-15.

Dexter Strickland: 2-of-9.

Marcus Paige: 0-of-4.

Reggie Bullock: Zero points in the first half and nine for the game on 4-of-9 shooting, just 1-of-4 from the three-point line.

Oh, well. We've kind of gotten used to this in Atlanta, haven't we? This is getting ridiculous. Carolina came into the night a combined 1-9 in football and basketball--one stinking win!--in Atlanta over the past decade, and those numbers above suggest the Tar Heels assuredly must have suffered their fifth hoops loss in six tries at Georgia Tech in the Roy Williams era. I am not coming to Atlanta anymore. Just forget it. There's no point anymore, because...

Wait, what? Even with the above figures, plus with only one player on the roster (Leslie McDonald) shooting better than 50 percent from the field and with the Tar Heels losing the rebounding battle to the Yellow Jackets for the second straight game in the series, Carolina managed to collect a precious road win, posting a 70-58 victory in front of a sellout crowd.

The victory extended one of the most remarkable streaks in the history of a remarkable program: the Tar Heels have now swept at least one two-game series from an ACC opponent for every year of the conference's existence (this is where we all give thanks for Clemson during the 2001-02 season).

How did they get this particular back half of the sweep over the Jackets? Not with the much ballyhooed smaller lineup. Not with the suddenly potent offense that raced to 93 points against Virginia on Saturday. But with something slightly unexpected: defense.

The Tar Heels held Tech without a point for seven full minutes in the final period, and the 12-0 UNC run during that stretch was the third-biggest against the Jackets this year. Carolina forced the Jackets into 19 turnovers, eventually using those miscues to fuel a 12-0 run midway through the second half; the eventual 22-point lead the visitors built after a pair of Paige free throws with 4:50 remaining was the largest deficit Georgia Tech has faced this entire season.

In other words, it was a complete road domination...and they did it with defense.

"We were trying to play in the passing lane," said McDonald, who came off the bench to score 15 points. "Coach told us their guards like to attack screens, so we wanted to attack them before they attacked us."

About the way they played those screens: Roy Williams, the man who is often accused of being inflexible, has made a subtle change in the way his team defends ball screens. Over the last three games, the Tar Heels have frequently tried to "flat out" opposing ball screens. The difference is miniscule, but it's been effective.

In the old way, when opposing ball-handling guards tried to use a ball screen, the Carolina big man would show out hard, then get back to his man immediately. Now, well, let Paige tell it.

"We've had the big guys stay flat and drag the ball handler out side-to-side until his man can get back," Paige said. "It makes it tougher for them to make a pass out of a ball screen. They would try to create after the screen and we were able to get some interceptions. Being able to have a couple different ways to play it and mix it up some really helped us out today."

It helped immeasurably, because Carolina actually didn't shoot the ball that well. They hit just 37.9% from the field (third-lowest in a win this season), and managed just 30 percent from the three-point line (fourth-lowest in a win this season). Hairston and Bullock combined to go 2-for-11 from three-point range, and all of the above sounds like a recipe for disaster until you consider that the Tar Heels' defense enabled them to spend very little time in the second half in a conventional half court offense.

Instead, Carolina would simply wait for Tech to make an error, swipe one of their 14 steals, and sprint the other way. Carolina's 14 fast-break points were the second-most allowed by Brian Gregory's squad--which heavily emphasizes transition defense--this season.

"We were able to get in passing lanes and get deflections, and that led to a lot of run outs," said Paige, who contributed four of the steals. "At times, our defense tonight was a lot better getting out and denying and enabling us to get some easy baskets."

The defense and resulting offense had the effect of doing what Carolina has sometimes been unable to do this year, and take the crowd completely out of the game. By the time only a few minutes remained, the light blue in the stands in Atlanta--one of the biggest UNC strongholds outside of North Carolina, and a place where residents were thirsty for some bragging rights--was so dominant that they got a hearty "Tar"-"Heels" cheer going.

Many of those same fans waited out by the Carolina bus after the game, where the Tar Heel players and coached posed for photos and signed autographs well past 11:30 p.m. on a chilly school night. It was worth a few extra minutes delay. It may not have been especially recognizable, but it was worth remembering: So this is what a win in Atlanta looks like.

Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and the author or co-author of seven books on the Tar Heels.

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