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.