Into the Teeth of the Packline

They’re everywhere.

When you catch the ball, in your face.

Off the screen, a flash of navy is right in your grill.

Try as you might, their length always gets you, cutting your driving and passing lanes off and forcing fadeaway twos and long threes all night long, holding you to near season lows in shooting percent from the field, from beyond the arc and in attempts from the free throw line.

Monday night, the North Carolina men’s basketball team was just the latest of many victims to Virginia’s packline defense, as the Cavaliers held the Tar Heels to just 35.4 percent from the field, and 30 percent from the three-point line in UNC’s 69-61 loss.

Luke Maye goes up for a shot against UVA’s Mamdi Diakite. The senior forward struggled against the Cavaliers, scoring just four points on 2-of-10 shooting. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Luke Maye goes up for a shot against UVA’s Mamdi Diakite. The senior forward struggled against the Cavaliers, scoring just four points on 2-of-10 shooting. | Photo by Alex Kormann

“They might slip up once or twice, but you know they'll make up for it,” senior guard Kenny Williams said. “You've got to be locked in every possession. And if you don't do the right thing every possession, then it'll be a long night for you.”

The Tar Heels (19-5, 9-2 ACC) never got comfortable on the offensive end throughout the game, as Virginia’s (21-2, 9-2 ACC) combination of persistent defense and methodical offense slowed the pace to a near standstill at times. If it wasn’t for a few lucky threes shot from way too deep, UNC would’ve trailed by much more than the seven it did at the half.

For sure, UNC had chances. A domination of the boards, 38-27 overall and a whopping 16-2 on the offensive glass, kept them in the game when UVA got hot shooting (a 6-for-9 clip in the first half). The advantage rebounding gave UNC just enough of an opening to get hot on their own run in the second half. Coby White drilled a three, Cam Johnson got a layup with an and-1, Luke Maye hit a fadeaway.

The key was turning the Cavaliers over and forcing face breaks, getting UVA out of their system and playing the run and gun “Carolina Basketball” Chapel Hill has come to know and love.

But as it always seems to happen against UVA, the packline defense came back into form to made things difficult, and UNC couldn’t make the shots to break it.

“They didn't do anything differently, they kept playing the way they play,” Cam Johnson said of UVA’s 21-6 run to end the game. “They really get in the lanes. They make it hard for you to get stuff going toward the basket. They help each other. They talk to each other.”

A lot of the success of the defense comes from the Cavaliers’ length, both in the post and on the wings. With 6-foot-10 Jack Salt, 7-foot-1 Jay Huff, and 6-foot-9 Mamadi Diakite in the lane, it’s near impossible to get a quality shot off in the paint, and with 6-foot-7 DeAndre Hunter and 6-foot-5 Ty Jerome guarding the drive, you’d be luck to get in there in the first place.

The trio of bigs in particular were huge in neutralizing Luke Maye’s impact. The senior forward scored just four points despite hauling in 11 rebounds, unable to post up or work a pick and roll game to get the open shots he usually does. Cameron Johnson noted that Virginia often double teams the ball when it comes in the post, which made it difficult to get Maye the ball in his usual spots.

On the opposite end of the court, UNC struggled to get stops in the closing moments. Virginia’s offense features a lot of movement, utilizing both motion and screens to forces teams to switch on defense. The result, usually, is a quality shot, typically toward the end of the shot clock. If someone is slow covering their man for even a split second, as Kenny Williams was on Kyle Guy twice in the closing minutes, it usually results in a wide-open shot.

Kenny Williams handles the ball at the top of the key for UNC. The senior guard put blame on himself post game for the loss, noting his defensive lapses guarding Kyle Guy down the stretch. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Kenny Williams handles the ball at the top of the key for UNC. The senior guard put blame on himself post game for the loss, noting his defensive lapses guarding Kyle Guy down the stretch. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Sure, injuries that took Nassir Little out of the game the rest of the way early in the first half and the four minutes without Cameron Johnson, both due to rolled ankles, hurt UNC. The continued absence of Leaky Black and Sterling Manley from the rotation certainly did too.

And it’ll also be easy for Tar Heel fans to remember the just missed chances for buckets from Coby White at the end of the first half and as the shot clock expired in the second on his prayer of a heave, taken away on two correct referee calls.

But far more consequential was White’s 6-for-19 line from the field, and 3-for-11 clip from beyond the arc. Or the fact UNC only got to the charity stripe seven times total.

UNC lost not because of injuries, or referees, or even the fools wearing UMBC jerseys at the front of the student section brining bad karma to the Smith Center.

The Tar Heels lost as most teams do: by not executing enough on either end of the court in the waning moments. Or during the entire game, for that matter.

“Guys, they shot 53 (percent) and we shot 35 (percent), so I’m not bragging on anybody, including the head coach,” coach Roy Williams said exasperatedly at his post game press conference.

UNC gets perhaps the best ACC opponent possible to bounce back against on the road, taking on a struggling Wake Forest team in Winston-Salem on Saturday. But to go far in Charlotte in the ACC tournament in March, and perhaps get a better seed come NCAA tournament time, the Tar Heels will have to break the packline at some point in the future

But on Monday night, they once again were just its latest victim.

@sjdoughton