COLUMN: Championship recipe? Tar Heels get defensive vs. Syracuse

BROOKLYN — They've said it all year, each player spitting out the same ideal as if reciting from a handbook: championship teams are built on defense.

North Carolina knows from experience, having reached the NCAA championship game in consecutive years in part behind a stout team defense. Head coach Roy Williams has preached it all year, knowing his title-winning teams have always flashed prolific defense down the stretch.

This group has struggled mightily in that regard this season, often drawing scorn from its Hall of Fame coach. But the team teased that elite defensive potential in Wednesday's 78-59 win over Syracuse in the second round of the ACC Tournament, setting up a third-round revenge game against Miami on Thursday.

"I thought defensively it was one of our better games of the year," Williams said, "if not the best game of the year."

 Theo Pinson (above) was one of many cogs in UNC's defensive machine that limited Syracuse to season-low marks against the Tar Heels. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Theo Pinson (above) was one of many cogs in UNC's defensive machine that limited Syracuse to season-low marks against the Tar Heels. | Photo by Caleb Jones

The Tar Heels (23-9, 11-7 ACC) had a tenuous relationship with defense in the regular season. They showed marks of brilliance against Notre Dame, at times against Louisville and in the first half of Saturday's game at Duke, when the Blue Devils scored just 0.57 points per posesssion — lowest of any UNC opponent this season.

Yet, fittingly, Duke exposed UNC's defense in the second half with 49 points on 60 percent shooting. So did Miami four days earlier, when the Hurricanes shot 54.8 percent — most by an opponent — and spoiled senior night on a buzzer-beating shot. During the Tar Heels' troubling three-game skid this season, Williams said this was one of the worst defensive teams he's ever coached.

But Wednesday's win, which served as the defending champions' postseason debut, was likely this team's best showing yet. The Orange (20-13, 8-10 ACC) scored 59 points on 31.7 percent shooting — both season worsts for a UNC opponent — in the biggest margin of victory for any team in the tournament's first seven games.

"I can't tell you what changed; I can't tell you why everybody was so locked down on the defensive end," said Kenny Williams, arguably the team's best defender. "But I can tell you I liked it."

The junior guard was a major factor, holding second-team All-ACC guard Tyus Battle to 15 points on 4-of-21 shooting — a mere whimper compared to his game-high 26 points in UNC's 78-74 win in the Carrier Dome two weeks ago. To his credit, Williams also scored a team-high 17 points on the other end, many coming in transition off stalled Syracuse possessions.

Williams said he was focused on preventing dribble penetration, a key emphasis for the entire team this week after two defensive letdowns in the past eight days. For Joel Berry, the team's defensive woes were as simple as fixing that one area.

"We knew that our defense had to be great," senior Joel Berry said. "And that's what was killing us."

 Everybody, even big guys such as Luke Maye, were tasked with staying in front of their man for UNC's defense, which help Syracuse to 59 points in Wednesday's win. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Everybody, even big guys such as Luke Maye, were tasked with staying in front of their man for UNC's defense, which help Syracuse to 59 points in Wednesday's win. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Berry, to put it bluntly, said nobody could stay in front of the ball the past two games, when UNC allowed a combined 165 points. That posed a problem preparing for Syracuse, which exploits one-on-one matchups to drive to the hoop or kick out to wide-open three-point shooters.

It worked for the de facto home team at first, as five of the Orange's first seven buckets were threes, with a sixth coming seconds before the first-half buzzer. The final one gave life to the pro-Syracuse crowd, which nearly brought the underdogs back into it in the final few minutes.

But the Tar Heels buckled down in the second half, holding the Orange to one made three-pointer on 10 attempts and just two points in the final 4:17.

"We did a good job of staying in front of the ball," Berry said. "That was the biggest thing."

Kenny Williams says the team has been working on step-slide drills, a fundamental drill that emphasizes basic defensive stance on the move. The junior says the team hardly ever practices that drill this late in the year, but Roy Williams will stop at nothing to reinvigorate his team's defense.

It worked on Wednesday. UNC's defensive discipline was obvious to the naked eye, with players shading Syracuse ball-handlers and daring them to dribble into help defense. That forced the Orange's best offensive players to choose between a baseline trap or a contested shot at the top of the key, neither of which were fruitful against a swarming Tar Heel team that forced nine first-half turnovers and scored 10 of its first 25 points off Syracuse mistakes.

"We all know what time it is ..." Kenny Williams said. "We can't have any bad nights."

 Kenny Williams (24) was everywhere in Wednesday's win over Syracuse, leading UNC on both ends of the ball. | Photo by Caleb Jones

Kenny Williams (24) was everywhere in Wednesday's win over Syracuse, leading UNC on both ends of the ball. | Photo by Caleb Jones

If the Tar Heels ease to ease their road back to the Final Four, they can't afford one. Thanks to those two season-ending losses to Miami and Duke, UNC dropped to the No. 6 seed in the ACC Tournament, necessitating Wednesday's win against Syracuse. On Thursday, North Carolina will get another shot at the team that gave it 2016 title-game flashbacks with a cringe-worthy buzzer-beater.

"Miami played a big time game against us; we couldn't stop them ..." Roy Williams said on Wednesday. "We remember that. They remember that. But we have to play better tomorrow."

Should they beat the Hurricanes, the Tar Heels would be staring down two more potential games: a Friday showdown with the winner of Duke/Notre Dame and Saturday's championship final. All three possible games are crucial to the team's seeding in the NCAA Tournament, which could see UNC play its first two rounds in Charlotte if it runs the table in Brooklyn.

But all that wouldn't have mattered had the Tar Heels lost to Syracuse. They didn't, of course, because their defense wouldn't allow it. It didn't allow much of anything on Wednesday, as Battle and the Orange can attest to.

It's the first step to building a championship team.

"It's March, it's tournament time," Kenny Williams said. "So we've got to be locked in like that every night."

@CJacksonCowart

Photos by Caleb Jones