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Foul shooting, three-point defense doomed No. 12 North Carolina

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Just two days after struggling with Holy Cross for much of their 62-54 victory, No. 12 North Carolina faced a stiffer challenge in the form of the Belmont Bruins, who have made three straight NCAA tournament appearances. Armed with a plethora of players capable of hitting shots from beyond the arc, Rick Byrd’s Bruins more than held their own with the Tar Heels.

In the end a J.J. Mann three-pointer off of a dribble handoff with 13.1 seconds remaining proved to be the difference as Belmont knocked off North Carolina by the final score of 83-80 (the Bruins added a layup with two-tenths of a second remaining). And considering how much trouble North Carolina had defending the three-pointer, it’s fitting that Belmont won the game on a shot from beyond the arc. Belmont shot 15-for-37 from three on the afternoon, and while that certainly isn’t a great percentage (40.7%) by any means it was the way in which the Bruins found their looks that is a troublesome sign for North Carolina.

Many of those looks came by way of either “pick and pop” plays or dribble handoffs, with Mann (5-for-14) and Drew Windler (4-for-6) being the chief beneficiaries. For whatever reason the Tar Heels were unable to adjust with the exception of a 21-5 second half run that turned an 11-point deficit (55-44) into a five-point lead (65-60) with just under seven minutes remaining.

The key during that stretch: improved perimeter defense that included North Carolina switching every ball screen and dribble handoff, a move that made sense when considering how rarely the Belmont big men would roll to the basketball after setting a ball screen.

But on that last handoff, with Belmont deciding not to call a timeout after forcing a turnover, North Carolina didn’t switch and Mann made them pay. But that wasn’t the only issue for North Carolina, as they shot 22-for-48 from the foul line. Make those at an acceptable clip and there likely isn’t any talk of the Tar Heels suffering their first loss of the season. Was the poor foul shooting a one-game occurrence or something Roy Williams and his staff should be seriously concerned about? Against Oakland (65.0%) and Holy Cross (72.2%) the Heels made enough, but to be fair neither of those teams challenged them to the level that Belmont did.

There were some positives for North Carolina, however. The Tar Heels used their superior size to control the glass, finishing the game with an offensive rebounding percentage of 50%. And forward Brice Johnson gave UNC 14 points and nine rebounds off the bench, providing needed offensive production to supplement leading scorers James Michael McAdoo (27 points, 13 rebounds) and Marcus Paige (17, five assists).

But the little things are a big deal, especially when your best perimeter scorer (P.J. Hairston) is suspended and there’s no timetable for a return. And after doing enough to get past Holy Cross on Friday, North Carolina learned that lesson the hard way against Belmont.

Johnson, Paige help No. 9 Tar Heels roll past Panthers 85-64

North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks (4) dunks against Pittsburgh during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Brice Johnson scored 19 points to lead a dominating offensive performance that helped No. 9 North Carolina beat Pittsburgh 85-64 on Sunday.

Marcus Paige added 15 points for the Tar Heels (21-4, 10-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 59 percent to stay atop the league ahead of the next renewal of their fierce rivalry with Duke.

UNC had plenty of balance, shared the ball and got out in transition in arguably their best performance in weeks, using a 13-0 second-half burst to blow the game open. UNC finished with 26 assists on 32 baskets, 24 points off turnovers and scored 16 fast-break points after managing a combined five in the past two games.

Michael Young and James Robinson each scored 15 points to lead Pitt (17-7, 6-6). But the Panthers shot 37 percent and committed 19 turnovers, and a strong effort on the glass did little to offset their troubles.

The Tar Heels were playing their first home game in two weeks after a difficult three-game road trip that started with losses at Louisville and Notre Dame. Then came Tuesday’s game at Boston College, where the Tar Heels struggled against a winless league team then had a scare when Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams briefly collapsed in a second-half huddle after an attack of vertigo and had to leave the sideline for the rest of the game.

Williams was back in the office on Wednesday’s off day, returned to practice Thursday and told reporters Friday he was fine and even cracked jokes about a two-decade history with vertigo dating to his Kansas years.

Getting back home certainly helped everyone feel better. After wrestling with shooting struggles for much of the past month, UNC’s offense kicked back into an efficient and balanced gear, while Paige – the player the Tar Heels are practically begging to jolt free from a prolonged shooting slump – looked more like his old self against the Panthers.

That included one second-half play in which he caught a crosscourt pass from Theo Pinson in transition and made sure to step back behind the arc before burying a 3-pointer.

The Panthers had lost three of four since a 5-2 league start coming in, including 65-63 on a late tip-in at No. 12 Miami on Tuesday. And Pitt again had trouble getting their offense going, failing to crack 70 points for the third straight game.

TIP-INS

Pittsburgh: Second-leading scorer Jamel Artis scored five points on 2-for-8 shooting. … Pitt finished with a 41-29 rebounding advantage. … Pitt made 9 of 21 3-point attempts.

UNC: Justin Jackson scored 14 points. … UNC made 8 of 15 shots from 3-point range and 13 of 15 free throws. … Jackson and Pinson had six assists each. … UNC managed just one offensive rebound.

UP NEXT

Pittsburgh hosts Wake Forest on Tuesday.

UNC hosts Duke on Wednesday.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Denzel Valentine dominant as No. 8 Michigan State whips Indiana

Michigan State's Denzel Valentine (45) shoots over Indiana's Kevin Yogi Ferrell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
AP Photo/Al Goldis
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Trailing by one point at the half, Indiana appeared to be in good shape at No. 8 Michigan State. However the fact that they were unable to slow down Denzel Valentine, who scored 15 first-half points, was a major concern for Tom Crean’s Hoosiers. Sure enough the national Player of the Year candidate continued on his tour de force in the second half, scoring another 15 points and dishing out seven assists as the Spartans rolled to an 88-69 victory.

For the game Valentine finished with 30 points, five rebounds, 13 assists and just one turnover. Of Michigan State’s 48 second half points, Valentine had a hand in 29 of them with all seven of his assists resulting in Michigan State layups. It was a dominant performance from one of the nation’s best players, a versatile guard whose four games missed due to injury may have led to some overlooking him when it comes to those national Player of the Year conversations.

When Valentine’s on everything else flows smoothly for Tom Izzo’s team, as his ability to both score and create results in quality looks for teammates who would struggle if they had to get that part of the job done themselves.

The biggest beneficiary Sunday afternoon was forward Matt Costello, who finished the game with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Of Costello’s ten made field goals (10-for-12 FG) five were assisted by Valentine, and he accounted for 13 points and seven rebounds in the second half. As a team Michigan State shot 63.3 percent from the field and assisted on 16 of their 19 made field goals in the second half, turning a tight contest into a blowout.

Tum Tum Nairn returned the court for the first time in seven games, but he played just two minutes and his time on the court will be managed carefully by Izzo moving forward. For many teams not having your point guard at full strength would represent a crippling blow, but that hasn’t been the case for Michigan State thanks in large part to Valentine. Michigan State went 4-3 in those seven games without Nairn, but the three losses were by a total of three points.

Valentine’s ability to make his teammates better will be a key factor down the stretch for Michigan State, and that skill was what led to the Spartans blowing out Indiana on Sunday.