Commentary

UNC proves its Achilles' heel is not on defense

Originally Published: March 9, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

DURHAM, N.C. -- For everyone out there hoping indifferent defense might be the Achilles' (Tar) Heel in North Carolina's title drive, we have this sobering update:

Carolina pitched a shutout for the final 5 minutes, 41 seconds Saturday night. Against Duke. At Cameron Indoor.

That's how you go from 68-66 behind to 76-68 ahead at the final horn of this endlessly compelling rivalry. And that's how you go from just one of seven or eight national title contenders to the official NCAA Tournament favorite.

The powder-blue Achilles is fine. Oh, and the powder-blue ankle of Ty Lawson is getting better, too. Combine those two factors, and Carolina is getting scary at just the right time.

"Very satisfying," said Carolina forward Danny Green, a major contributor to the lockdown effort. "It just shows and proves to everyone we're capable of stopping people defensively. We're a good defensive team."

Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to the new, defensively invigorated Tar Heels.

On a night when college basketball went high-glamour, with Peyton and Eli Manning, Matthew McConaughey and Christian Laettner all in the house, the game was won by low-glam defense. Here's what the Heels did to the Dukies:

• Rejected nearly one-third of their 2-point field goals (15 blocked shots in 47 Duke attempts).

• Forced 10 first-half turnovers from the ACC's best ballhandling team.

• Limited the Blue Devils to 32.9 percent shooting on the night, their lowest percentage since November 2006 against Indiana. (They've played 55 games since then.) The Blue Devils missed 11 straight shots after taking that brief 68-66 lead, their first since they were up 3-0.

"Everyone talks about our defense and how it's not where it needs to be," said guard Wayne Ellington. "We had a gut check tonight, and we buckled down and did it."

D-ing up has its rewards, among them an Atlantic Coast Conference title and the near certainty of up to four games in the state of North Carolina come Big Dance time. First- and second-round games in Raleigh should be followed by a trip to Charlotte.

Carolina ranks first in the ACC in five offensive statistical categories, but only fifth in field-goal-percentage defense and 10th in points allowed. That's why there was a time this season when coach Roy Williams took the rims off the backboards at practice. The point was to ensure that his offensively gifted players would hunker down at that less enjoyable side of the game and stop some people.

[+] EnlargeTy Lawson
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesEven at a self-professed 85 percent, Ty Lawson made key plays in important moments for the Tar Heels.

"We've been drilling it since the first day," Williams said. "I don't think anybody works harder on it than our kids. It's a challenge to try to be a really good defensive team. … The statistics show that we've gotten better defensively. It's something you have to be good at if you want to reach those big dreams that we have."

Duke presented a particularly difficult challenge because its diminutive, perimeter-oriented players could drag Carolina's big men away from the basket and bomb away from 3-point range. That's what the Devils did when they won in Chapel Hill last month, when they hit 13 3-pointers.

So Williams did something he said he's never done as a head coach: ordered his players to switch every perimeter ball screen. That presented some awkward mismatches, including 6-foot-9 brawler Tyler Hansbrough trying to check 6-1 Greg Paulus, or 5-11 Lawson leaning on 7-1 Brian Zoubek. But Duke never could take full advantage of those opportunities.

"When I was on Zoubek, they didn't even look for him," Lawson said, sounding surprised.

What the Blue Devils occasionally lacked in poise and execution, they made up for in grit and aggression. They harassed Hansbrough into 13 missed shots and never let him get to the foul line -- for the first time since his freshman year, when Carolina was eliminated from the 2006 NCAA Tournament by George Mason.

(And still the Dukies were left screaming that Hansbrough got preferential treatment from the refs. The oft-repeated chant: "Tyler travels every time!" And not just the body-painted student horde screamed it. Also raucously shouting it were the always-demure Krzyzewski women, wife Mickie and daughters all in the act.)

Scrambling back from a 14-point deficit against the No. 1 team in the country, it appeared Duke might pull away once it took the lead. But the Devils couldn't close the deal against a team that refused to allow any easy (or hard) baskets in the final stretch.

Carolina allowed plenty of good looks in its two losses, to Maryland (which shot 47 percent) and Duke (46 percent, including 45 from 3-point range). Williams' team hadn't been sufficiently stout at stopping the ball, leading to excessive periods of help defense and too many open shooters.

Saturday night, the Heels did better. And on those occasions when Duke's drivers got to the rim, someone routinely rose up to swat the shots away.

"We showed him we can play defense and stay in front of our man," Lawson said. "We got a lot of heart, and we showed it tonight."

Lawson's return to the lineup after missing six games with an ankle sprain is vital to Carolina's postseason. He pronounced himself about 85 percent back, and even when lacking his characteristic explosion to the basket, the sophomore made several significant plays Saturday night. His 10 points, three assists and three steals all seemed to come at key moments.

But on this night the star of the show was Green. A guy better known for his pregame dance routine at home games showed he has some prime-time moves on the court, racking up 18 points, eight rebounds and a career-high seven blocks.

"Danny was just an animal," Lawson said. "He went after everything."

Green went after the rim with particular gusto on one first-half fast break, posterizing Paulus with a thunderous dunk that Heels fans will be celebrating for months.

"It felt good, man," Green said. "There's a lot of people in the country that don't like Greg Paulus. I'm pretty sure they were pretty happy watching that."

There's a lot of people in the country who don't like Duke, period. But reports of the Devils' late-season demise are greatly exaggerated.

It has become fashionable to suggest that this Duke team is both overrated and overachieving, but it did nothing Saturday night to indicate an early NCAA exit is likely. For much of the second half, the Devils had the look of a Final Four contender.

"We've had a really good year," Mike Krzyzewski said, "and we don't feel it's over."

It's a long way from over. But the team that truly looks as if it should be playing on a Monday night in April is newly defensive North Carolina.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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