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Asked what he would have thought had someone told him before the season that Carolina would be 5-4 halfway through the ACC schedule, Roy Williams didn’t mince words.
“I would’ve been discouraged,” the veteran Tar Heels head coach offered.
“I just want us to play better,” Williams explained after Saturday’s overtime loss to NC State. “Even when we’ve won … I came in here to press conferences and wasn’t real pleased in the way were playing at that time.” Nevertheless, Williams emphasized that he’s not panicking: “I’m not ready to abandon ship or anything like that.”
“We should be better than 5-4 in the ACC,” forward Cameron Johnson admitted. “Stuff happens, and it’s the ACC. Teams are good, teams come to play.”
But Johnson was even more adamant than his coach about the team remaining confident, flatly stating: “There will be no panic in our locker room.”
PINSON SENSATIONAL IN LOSS
The loss wasted tremendous performances from senior forward Theo Pinson, who set new career highs in both scoring with 22 points and rebounding with 15 boards on his way to his third career double-double, and Luke Maye, who had 31 points on 11-for-22 shooting and 12 rebounds.
Williams and players alike emphasized Pinson’s increased aggressiveness as the key to his career day.
“I just needed to be more active,” Pinson explained. “Last game [at Virginia Tech] I wasn’t aggressive at all and was looking to pass all the time and not being a threat on the court. I wanted to be a threat and take what the defense gave me and try to play hard.”
“Aggression, rebounding,” Kenny Williams agreed. “That’s what he’s been trying to work on lately. He’s just been himself.”
“We need Theo to play like that every day,” Maye added. “I’ve always known he can play like that.”
PROBLEMS DEFENDING THE PERIMETER
NC State shot a torrid 15 for 30 from 3-point range, led by Allerik Freeman’s 7-for-7 performance, marking the 15th time UNC has allowed double-digit makes from long range this season, already the most in the Roy Williams era. Last season previously held the high mark with 11.
Simply put, UNC has to defend the perimeter better, and it’s not just about closing out on shooters.
“I think a lot of it came from penetration,” Johnson explained. “They got into the lane a lot and got a lot of kick out, and they made shots.”
“We’re still working out some of the kinks with guarding the ball screen, especially with our small lineup sometimes,” Maye added. “Whether to switch it, whether to go under or whether to hedge.”
Williams noted that late in the game, Carolina began switching against the ball screens to prevent penetration, but NC State point guard Braxton Beverly promptly stepped back and knocked down yet another 3-pointer for the Wolfpack, “so it wasn’t very good on that possession.”
Difficulties defending the ball were also the primary reason Jalek Felton only played four minutes, despite having some success on the offensive side. After two straight possessions on which he got lost as an on-ball defender (once against a screen and once in a one-on-one situation), leading to two easy NCSU baskets, Williams immediately put senior Joel Berry back on the floor.
Another significant factor in Carolina’s 3-point defense is the Heels’ lack of rim protection, particularly when employing a small-ball lineup with Maye at center. Less of a shot-blocking presence in the paint leads to a greater need for help against dribble penetration, meaning more open perimeter shooters.
That aspect of the problem again emphasizes the importance of continued growth of the freshman big men, who Carolina will need to provide an important defensive presence at least in spurts down the stretch.