Clemson tried to win in Chapel Hill for the 56th time, and for the 56th time it failed. Apart from a sluggish stretch during the second half, the Heels handled the Tigers fairly easily yesterday afternoon and pulled away for the final 74-52 margin.
Carolina finally has begun to establish its identity. For much of the season the Heels appeared determined to establish offensive credentials along the lines of the triumphant 2005 and 2009 squads, but this team simply doesn’t possess the perimeter firepower to win big playing that style.
So now the Heels have dug in their … uh, yeah, they’ve clamped down defensively and are dominating the backboards each contest. Carolina destroyed Clemson on the glass 39-26, gaining 11 offensive rebounds and converting many of those opportunities into points.
Tyler Zeller receives accolades primarily for his refined post scoring, but his defense has been just as impressive this season. John Henson is the shot-blocking machine and Reggie Bullock has filled in admirably for the team’s ace defender, Dexter Strickland, who recently underwent surgery for a torn ACL and is out of the season.
Can these guys capture Roy Williams’ third national championship with defense and rebounding alone? Probably not.
Carolina has shot the ball poorly during ACC play. Roy Williams said earlier in the season that his team stroked the ball commendably during practice, and that translating those makes into actual games would be the next step. Well, he now says they’re also missing shots in practice, and recently the offense has become entirely unbalanced in favor of the Zeller/Henson/Harrison Barnes trio.
For that reason the club’s three-point percentage against Clemson offers hope. Barnes hasn’t shot as many threes this season as he did last year, but he hunted the arc more assertively yesterday and knocked in 3-for-6 on threes. Reggie Bullock rediscovered his stroke and made 3-for-5 himself to spearhead the 6-for-14 overall effort from deep.
Keeping those two consistent while getting a shooting contribution from Kendall Marshall and P.J. Hairston would enhance UNC’s offense substantially. Marshall shot a solid 38 percent (in relatively few attempts) on threes last year but has fallen to 28 percent this season.
Hairston has redefined what it means to be ice cold. After a blazing start, he has fallen to 29 percent and has converted just 15 percent against ACC opponents. He has been dealing with injury problems that unquestionably have hindered his accuracy, so getting him healthy and confident for the stretch run will be critical.
Next up is N.C. State on Tuesday. The Heels whacked the Pack in Chapel Hill but will face an inspired — and desperate — club hoping to scalp UNC in Raleigh to bolster their NCAA Tournament credentials. The Wolfpack nearly defeated Duke this past week and possess the talent to compete, but Carolina’s size poses an especially challenging match-up.
Click here to view the UNC/Clemson box score.