Written by: Mike Ryan (@Mikey_ryan11)
North Carolina is riding hot having won four consecutive games and look to be a team heading in the right direction as the stretch run is approaching. The Tar Heels have now won three games in five days over Duke, North Carolina State, and Notre Dame.
North Carolina looks as if they are a team with a new focus, a better drive and a team motivated to prove people wrong.
Just two weeks ago, the season looked as if it was slipping out of control. Three consecutive losses dropped UNC to 16-7 overall (5-5 ACC). The Tar Heels were projected to fall down to a bubble team instead of a sure lock for the tournament with the way the play went. Even more concerning from a fan’s perspective was the upcoming schedule. The Tar Heels still had to face a gauntlet of tough opponents to finish the year and were barely a .500 ACC team after playing the soft part of their schedule.
The Virginia Tech loss started the questions about the Tar Heels. North Carolina was never really in the game and ended up losing by 11 on the road. Kerry Blackshear called the game a character test for the Hokies and yet North Carolina seemed unmotivated to play.
North Carolina followed that game with a an overtime loss to in-state “rival” North Carolina State. Carolina’s defense was a huge concern and fueled more questions on how good this team may be. NC State shot 15-30 from three and dished out 20 assists. The loss prompted Roy Williams to call the Tar Heels the “worst defensive team he’s ever coached”. That’s alarming to hear considering Williams has been at the helm for the past 15 years.
North Carolina than traveled to Clemson to play a team that had beaten 20 of the past 21 times and 10 consecutive times. The Tar Heels start the game by trailing by 16 at half and had the same defensive miscues they had in the NC State game. Clemson also made 15-30 from the three-point line.
In the second half of that game, things started to change for the Heels. Even though they lost 82-78, the team came out ready to go to start the second half. They moved the ball on offense, communicated on the back end on defense and started to hit shots. North Carolina battled all the way back to tie the game at 74 with 2:07 remaining. Although they could not close it out, the fight was awesome to see. The team didn’t quit.
North Carolina followed the game up by blowing out Pittsburgh. Not really saying much, but it was nice game to have scheduled during a three-game losing streak and having Duke on deck.
With a win back under the belt, College Basketball’s best rivalry was about to take place. North Carolina trailed Duke 40-28 during the first 14 minutes of the game and was able to cut the deficit down to four at halftime. In the second half, the Tar Heels were a different team outscoring Duke 27-13 within the first 10 minutes of the second half. North Carolina turned a four-point deficit into a 10-point lead. The defensive energy and the open and clean looks North Carolina got on offense was exactly what they needed. The starting five combined for 78 of the team’s 82 points.
North Carolina then hit the road to take on NC State in a rematch of the crosstown “rivals”. I say “rivals” because the only person who does not actually believe it is a rivalry is Joel Berry. Luke Maye played like it was rivalry game posting 33 points, 17 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks and 1 steal. Maye joined Mitch Kupchak as the only Tar Heel to post two 30+ points and 15+ rebounds in a season.
Last night, the senior leadership of Theo Pinson and Joel Berry led North Carolina to a win over Notre Dame. Pinson had 16 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists while Berry poured in a team high 21 points.
With four games remaining, North Carolina now sits at 20-7 (9-5 ACC) and is in third place in the conference. It’s been an extremely strong rebound for a team that showed major signs of weaknesses just two weeks ago.
North Carolina still has flaws, but they’ve hit their stride. The defensive energy seems to be there every night. Players are diving for loose balls, standing in the way to take a charge, and players are starting to shoot with more confidence.
These are all welcoming signs as the tournament approaches. Maybe these Tar Heels can continue to stay hot and make another deep run to the Final Four. Time will tell, but at least for now they’ve returned to that championship mindset.