DEAN E. SMITH CENTER/ CHAPEL HILL—Sportsfans, I hope you made a whole day and evening of it and, after you watched North Carolina hold off Pittsburgh for their sixth straight win, found a place to settle in at dinner time to watch Duke escape Maryland by little more than the width of the rim and Syracuse somehow edge North Carolina State almost in spite of themselves. This was one of the more scintillating days of local basketball you're likely to see, and UNC's hard-won mid-afternoon victory was just the soup appetizer in a three-course hoop prix fixe that ended nuts.
In other words, the game in Chapel Hill is the easy part of today's Triangle basketball report.
The Tar Heels seemed in control of this one for much of the game, despite managing a lead that was actually pretty small for most of the second half. They looked poised, (mostly) in command, and trustworthy except for a few erratic stretches. Carolina benefited from Pittsburgh's foul trouble in a tightly officiated game. (Four Panthers and three Tar Heels had two fouls each by halftime.) Star Panthers guard Lamar Patterson got his second foul about halfway through the first half with his team leading, 20-15. He sat out until just over a minute remained in the half. In the intervening eight-plus minutes, UNC outscored Pittsburgh, 20-9. The Tar Heels led by four at the break.
After a seesaw first seven minutes of the second half, the score was 45-42, more or less a draw. Pitt had switched to a 2-3 zone, partly in order to protect players from picking up more fouls, and for a while, UNC had trouble with it. Then Nate Britt came into the game and did what you need to do against a 2-3: attack it. This is less for strictly tactical reasons than it is for reasons of energy. A 2-3 zone can lull you into a sort of frustrated sleep.
The numbers don't look good for Britt. He shot 1-9, and the concern is less the poor shooting itself than the nine shots, tied for second most on the team Saturday with Marcus Paige. (James Michael McAdoo took 18, making 11, and scored a game-high 24 points.) Britt shouldn't be the third option on this team; it's to Pittsburgh's credit that they kept forcing his shooting hand. (He took more shots than Kennedy Meeks and J.P. Tokoto combined.)
Not only that, but Britt dribbled himself into the trees of trouble a couple of times, missed three shots in four minutes, and played with a freshman recklessness that ought to have seemed destructive. Instead, his overall zip and zoom poked some holes in the zone for his team and got them some space and spark inside it. The Tar Heels figured out how to get some high-post-low-post passing done, creating good opportunities for Brice Johnson, and by the time Britt came out of the game with 9:06 to play, UNC led by nine. Another good interior pass led to a three-point play for Johnson, and the Tar Heels extended the lead to 12 at the 8:50 mark. They needed Britt to get there.
They lost focus after that—almost all college sports teams do, at some point or another, being college students—and back clawed the Panthers, a tenacious team coming off a heartbreaking loss in an upset bid at undefeated Syracuse. But the lead Carolina had built allowed them to withstand Pittsburgh's run. With the lead shaved back down to two points and fewer than five minutes to play, James Michael McAdoo hit a pair of crucial shots—not fancy or fun ones, just short, strong jumpers—to pad the lead back out to five points and two possessions.
McAdoo had been the culprit in stopping Carolina's run earlier in the second half. With UNC leading 61-49, he tried an ill-advised semi-transition drive to the basket from a poor angle that was probably meant to lead to a bark-at-the-moon throwdown. But the attempt had little chance; it was low-percentage and well defended. McAdoo missed the shot, and Pitt scored the next five points.
Now, in crunch time, he simply recognized the need for points and did the legwork of producing them. Lately, the Tar Heels can be a really fun team to watch: lots of dunks, exciting second halves from Marcus Paige (he had his second four-point play of the season tonight), plentiful Brice Johnson blocks of opponents' layup attempts. McAdoo's jump shots partook of a much less fun but far more (say it) fundamental reservoir of basketball.
Yet there would be more work to do. In the game's final few minutes, Carolina committed a couple of turnovers, lost the ball once on an overturned out-of-bounds call and then again when Jackson Simmons dove and grabbed the ball in a scrum under Pitt's basket but had his foot out of bounds. McAdoo fouled out with :26 left when he was whistled for a shove while chasing a Brice Johnson rejection out of bounds, and Pitt's Patterson missed a fairly open look at a game-tying three-pointer with seven seconds to play. The Tar Heels, who shoot free throws badly, needed Johnson to hit at least one to make it a two-possession game with just a tick or two left, and he hit exactly one: just enough work accomplished to seal a win.
It was a fraught final minute or two. Fans were unhappy with the refereeing, Carolina didn't execute well on offense, and their defensive intensity—which was strong, and for which they don't get enough credit—was not always rewarded with results. Yet consider this unspectacular, un-fun but tack-sharp sequence:
With less than a minute left, Carolina had a seven-point lead that seemed pretty safe, especially when Lamar Patterson bulled into McAdoo on a drive and should have been called for a charge. Instead, McAdoo took the foul, unjustly (I'm not a referee-hawk, but this one was just plain wrong). Not just the fans but a red-hot Roy Williams were vociferously angry at the call. Patterson made the and-one free throw to make it 72-68. Pitt went to a full-court press, and Carolina made crisp, quick passes to beat it and get the ball into the frontcourt.
PItt had to foul now. The Tar Heels know full well that they have only one reliable free throw shooter: Paige, who at 90 percent is nearly automatic; so they whipped the ball around some more until it was into Paige's hands, with what was apparently that explicit goal. And every one of Carolina's five players touched the ball in the span of just six seconds. Paige made the free throws—the reward for hard, smart, drill-level teamwork—and UNC endured the last scrapes of the final 30 seconds.
In the corridor before the second half started, the Tar Heels gathered into their customary huddle and chanted, as one, the two words that I presume are a motto of theirs: "All work!" As they broke, one of the players added, "Twenty minutes, fellas." And then they fellas went and did their work for 20 minutes. Did they do it well? Not always. Roy Williams wasn't happy with their second-half play, and said so almost immediately after he began his post-game comments. Yet the simple fact that he could start off voicing that dissatisfaction was itself a strong indicator of where this team is. Four games ago, when UNC was just starting to get its act together, it wasn't time yet to go straight into picking apart the flaws in a win.
Now, after knocking off a ranked team—for the first time in two months—Williams's 60-day review of his employees can rightly start with criticism: The Tar Heels have moved well past the lower threshold where just winning is enough, and onto the higher plane where it is expected of them to win well. Williams has said at least twice this year that he shouldn't have to coach effort but rather execution. His players are giving him the effort now, liberating him to take immediate issue with their execution. That's progress.
Because of the postponement of the UNC-Duke game Wednesday, both Carolina and Duke have to play four games in eight days. The Tar Heels go to Tallahassee for a game on Monday night against the Florida State Seminoles. Florida State has been slumping lately; they've lost five of their last seven games. But they're still ranked 35th in the country Ken Pomeroy's advanced-stat system, they have a good scoring defense and three seniors in their starting lineup, and a seasoned, savvy coach in Leonard Hamilton. (And vis a vis UNC, they'll always have Deividas Dulkys. And Geoff Brower (look it up). And Sam Cassell.)
In other words, this has trap-game written all over it. If the Tar Heels win it, their reward is playing Duke three days later. All work. Does no play make Jackson Simmons a dull boy?