Mike Dunleavy Sr. thought his team could keep up.
The second-year head coach at Tulane likes his teams to play fast and get lots of possessions, giving his team more chances to score. But against the No. 13 North Carolina Tar Heels, the Green Wave couldn't keep the pace in their 97-73 loss.
Why? Because the Tar Heels were the ones driving it.
"We aspire to play the way [UNC] played today," Dunleavy said. "We want to push the ball. We want to push the tempo. We want get quick scores. We want to get scores in the paint. We want to be in attack mode most of the game.
"Against other opponents this year we have done that. This game today, we didn’t do it.”
UNC’s pace was evident right from the tip, as the Tar Heels opened the game on a 21-4 run. It started with a Theo Pinson drive to basket for the easy dunk for the first points of the game. Kenny Williams pulled up for three to make it 7-2. Joel Berry drove in on the fast break and got a reverse layup to go to make it 9-2 and force a Green Wave timeout.
From there, things only went faster. A Pinson dunk off a Williams steal. Luke Maye earning a trip to the line for two. Pinson giving up the three for a layup to make it 17-4. More free throws, this time from Berry. By the under-12 minute timeout, UNC lead 23-8. With 10:18 left in the first half, UNC entered the bonus. And before you could blink, it felt like the Green Wave had already been run out of the gym.
"When we’re able to get into their legs early, that’s when we know if we keep attacking, we’ll be fine," Pinson said. "Especially if we can get in the bonus quickly...We already know we can get to their legs in the second half, so if we get it first half, that’s a luxury for us.”
Most UNC fans are familiar with how the Tar Heels run up and down the court. As soon as one of the forwards secures a rebound or gets ready to inbound the ball, they immediately look for the outlet pass, where one of the guards is already creeping up court to start the break. Once the guards have the ball, they can either drive in on their own or pull up and start the offense, which features constant motion and drives to hoop.
And at the end of their possession, score or no score, the Tar Heels sprint back on defense, preventing the transition bucket and starting the process over again.
When it clicks, it's beautiful basketball. And UNC does it at one of the fastest paces in college basketball, ranking 23rd in the nation in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted tempo rankings.
But it's not just the fast breaks that push the pace. UNC only scored 12 points in transition on the afternoon. UNC's drives attacking the basket help wear their opponents down and lead to simple points for the Heels, either at the hoop or at the charity stripe. Junior guard Kenny Williams says those easy buckets helps get team's blood pumping.
"Once we get a couple of layups, the crowd gets into it," Williams said. "And at that point, we get into it on the defensive end."
UNC's relentlessness on defense is part of the pace, too. Whether it's Kenny forcing turnovers from overplaying the power forward he's guarding, Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks using their size to disrupt shots, or Luke Maye grabbing the defensive board to start the break again, the stops are what keeps the engine going.
"Once we start getting stops, the ball starts coming off the rim, and we’re off to the races again," Williams said. "That's what we do. That's our bread and butter."
UNC did a lot of things well on Sunday, as one might expect given the score line. They defended well, holding the Green Wave to 37 percent from the field. They rebounded well, winning the battle on the boards 45-25. And they shot well offensively, shooting 65 percent from the field.
But all of those big stats start from the Heels pushing the pace on the court. It wasn’t always perfect. Coach Roy Williams will likely not be pleased with his team’s 13 turnovers. But it clicked often on Sunday.
And when the Tar Heels are firing on all cylinders, they can run anyone in the country out of the gym.