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No. 19 North Carolina’s defensive struggles continue in loss to No. 20 Clemson

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For the first time since January of 2014, North Carolina is on a three-game losing streak.

No. 19 North Carolina has not won since January 20th, a win that capped a four-game win streak in the aftermath of its 61-49 loss to Virginia on January 6. Tuesday night it was No. 20 Clemson that did the job, holding off a second-half Tar Heel rally to win 82-78 and end a 10-game losing streak in the series.

Brad Brownell’s team picked up its biggest win since senior forward Donte Grantham went down with a torn ACL in a loss to NC State on January 11, and the Tigers did it thanks in large part to their three-point shooting. Clemson, which did not make a two-point field goal until 7:50 remaining in the first half, shot 15-for-30 from beyond the arc on the night.

Gabe DeVoe made five, with Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell making three apiece, and the struggles defending the three has been a theme for North Carolina throughout the season.

Roy Williams’ team entered the game ranked 309th in three-point percentage defense, with opponents shooting 37.9 percent from three. During the current losing streak, the Tar Heels have allowed each of their three opponents to shoot better than that percentage. Virginia Tech shooting 40 percent (12-for-30) wasn’t significantly better than the percentage that the Heels are allowing on the season, but both NC State and Clemson shot 15-for-30 from deep.

Obviously, that can’t happen if a team is to be successful. But why is it happening? Far too often Tuesday night, North Carolina’s perimeter defenders were caught over-helping on dribble drives. Not having their best perimeter defender in Theo Pinson, who left the game with a strained left shoulder after taking a hard fall early in the first half, certainly didn’t help matters. But this was more about the players who were on the court than who wasn’t.

If anything, North Carolina’s struggles in defending the three are a combination of things as opposed to just one issue. There’s the struggle to defend on the ball, as Clemson’s guards were able to break down their defenders off the dribble. And whether it’s to compensate for the on-ball defender getting beat, or not fully trusting that man to handle his assignment, others get caught too far away from their matchups on the perimeter. As a result opponents have managed to find good looks, and at that level more often than not teams are going to take advantage.

Here’s something else to ponder when it comes to North Carolina’s defense. Could the questions surrounding the front court have something to do with the perimeter defending? As in, is the apparent need to cover up for their inexperienced bigs resulting in North Carolina’s perimeter defenders overcompensating in an attempt to cut off dribble penetration?

While Sterling Manley gave North Carolina some solid minutes off the bench, finishing with six points, six rebounds and two blocks in 20 minutes, Garrison Brooks accounted for just two points and four rebounds. Luke Maye has been outstanding throughout the season — Tuesday’s four-point, nine-rebound, three-block effort notwithstanding — Manley and Brooks have out of necessity been thrown into the deep end of the pool so to speak.

Both freshmen have a ways to go from a development standpoint. But to put North Carolina’s perimeter defending woes on the need to cover for the front court may be unfair. At a certain point the guards and wings have to be better, and be more committed, when it comes to not only defending on the ball but remaining focused off of it.

Yet even with those defensive struggles North Carolina had an opportunity to essentially steal a win, thanks to Joel Berry II and Cameron Johnson. Berry tallied 27 points and Johnson 32, the most he’s scored in a North Carolina uniform. Pinson’s playmaking ability would have helped, especially with Seventh Woods injured and Jalek Felton suspended, but once again not having the senior wing on the court was not why North Carolina lost.

Clemson deserves credit for what it was able to do offensively, thanks in large part to a perimeter that has become a source of strength after being a bit suspect last season. And with Wake Forest and Pittsburgh next on the schedule, the Tigers have the opportunity to build on this momentum ahead of a stretch run that includes games against Florida State (twice) and Duke.

But this result says even more about North Carolina and its continued struggles defending on the perimeter. If they don’t get this addressed, and soon, this group won’t be around long come NCAA tournament time.

The good news for North Carolina in the meantime: next up on the schedule is Pitt.

Cameron Johnson ending his slump is big for No. 15 North Carolina

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When it comes to the long-term hopes of No. 15 North Carolina, not only to win the ACC but to also be a national title contender, the play of veterans Joel Berry II and Luke Maye will be critical.

Rated among the best in the country at their respective positions, Berry and Maye entered Tuesday’s game against No. 20 Clemson averaging a combined 35.6 points per game.

Yet it would be two other Tar Heels, Kenny Williams III and Cameron Johnson, who combined to do the damage that dropped the visiting Tigers to 0-59 all-time in Chapel Hill. North Carolina won 87-79, holding off a Clemson squad that shot 61.3 percent from the field in the second half due in large part to the work done in the first half.

While both Maye and Berry II were kept quiet in the first half, Williams (12 points) and Johnson (eight) combined to score 20 points in the stanza. Johnson would finish the game with 21 points, the most that the Pitt transfer has scored in a North Carolina uniform, and Williams would add 15 as Roy Williams’ team moved to 4-2 in ACC play.

Berry (17 points, four assists), Theo Pinson (12 points, seven rebounds, six assists) and Maye (11 points, four rebounds, five assists) all performed better in the second half, making it possible for the Tar Heels to hang on despite being challenged by a team that made ten of its first 11 second-half shots.

Williams and Johnson have proven themselves to be capable supplementary scorers this season, with the former averaging just over 12 points per game on the season and the latter at 9.7. But in the case of Johnson, following up his 2-for-10 effort in Saturday’s win over Notre Dame by shooting 7-for-10 from the field (6-for-9 3PT) is a needed bounce-back effort.

Prior to Tuesday night, Johnson reached double figures just once in the four games prior (14 vs. Boston College) and shot a combined 3-for-16 from three. Getting Johnson back on track is a big deal for North Carolina, and if his performance against Clemson can serve as a spark that would certainly bode well for the Tar Heels moving forward.

A productive Johnson affords Roy Williams the luxury of playing a “small” lineup in which Johnson mans the four and Maye the five. This North Carolina team isn’t like past editions in the Williams era, as many of those squads possessed the ability to have two “true” big men on the court at all times. With the big men lost from last year’s national title team, it’s been Maye carrying much of the load with freshmen Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley both looking to work their way into the fold.

A consistent Johnson not only makes North Carolina better, but it’s also a necessity given the team’s available options.

As for Clemson, this game felt like one of the program’s best chances to finally pick up that elusive win in Chapel Hill. Brad Brownell’s group entered the game with a 15-2 record, and with the improvements both in the post (Elijah Thomas) and on the perimeter (Marquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell) this is a group that has some staying power.

But Reed, Mitchell and forward Donte Grantham got off to frigid starts, combining to score two points on 0-for-13 shooting from the field in the first half. Despite the first-half efforts of Thomas the hole was too deep to climb out of, with Clemson pulling to within two on multiple occasions in the second half. Reed got hot in the second stanza, finishing the game with 21 points, and Mitchell would add 18 points to the effort.

Now 1-1 halfway through an important four-game stretch — Notre Dame next, followed by a trip to Charlottesville to take on No. 2 Virginia — when it comes to their NCAA tournament seeding prospects, Clemson paid the price for its inability to knock down shots in the early going. But in their comeback, the Tigers put forth a performance along the lines of what they’ve managed to do for much of this season to date.

Unfortunately for Clemson, its supplementary scorers were unable to match the production of Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams III.

No. 24 Florida State holds on to beat No. 12 North Carolina

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Having lost its ACC opener at No. 2 Duke, No. 24 Florida State entered Wednesday’s game against No. 12 North Carolina in need of a victory. Leonard Hamilton’s team got the job done, hanging on to beat the Tar Heels 81-80 to extend its home winning streak to 28 straight games. Also, the Seminoles ended a seven-game losing streak to North Carolina, with both teams now 1-1 in ACC play as a result.

Here are a couple thoughts on what happened in Tallahassee and how it will affect both teams moving forward.

1. Over-helping off of drivers cost North Carolina in the first half.

Florida State went into the locker room at the half with a 51-40 lead, with the 51 points being the most North Carolina has allowed in the first half of a game this season (previous high: 38). The Seminoles shot 54.5 percent from the floor overall and made nine of its 20 three-point attempts. Florida State certainly deserves credit for knocking down shots, but a big part of the problem for North Carolina was it showing too much respect to dribble penetration.

On multiple occasions such a move would result in Florida State having kick-out opportunities, which its shooters were able to take in rhythm. North Carolina improved in this regard in the second half, with Florida State shooting 2-for-9 from three and 41.7 percent from the field overall. Defending the three has been an issue for the Tar Heels for much of this season, and it was a big reason why they trailed by double digits at the half.

2. Balanced scoring will serve Florida State well in ACC play.

The big question for the Seminoles entering the season was who would pick up the slack offensively, given how much production was lost from last season’s team. Terrence Mann, who averaged 8.4 points per game last season, was the most obvious answer. He’s certainly been a factor this season, but the Seminoles have been able to account for the loss of the likes of Dwayne Bacon, Jonathan Isaac and Xavier Rathan-Mayes by way of their offensive balance and that was the case Wednesday night.

Three players scored at least 17 points, with Braian Angola leading the way with 20, C.J. Walker adding 18 and Mann 17. Trent Forrest chipped in with nine, and that balance was certainly a factor in the Seminoles’ ability to pull out the victory. Phil Cofer had an off night, scoring five points on 2-for-11 shooting, but he entered Wednesday averaging 14.5 points per game on a team with five players averaging at least 9.5 points per night.

There may not be a guy averaging 17 per night like Bacon did last season, but Florida State has enough talent to get the job done offensively. Scoring 93 at Duke and now 81 against North Carolina backs that up.

3. North Carolina’s ceiling will be determined by the consistency of Theo Pinson.

Joel Berry II racked up a game-high 28 points to lead three Tar Heels in double figures, with Kenny Williams adding 18 points and Luke Maye 14 in a losing effort. What Berry and Maye will provide offensively is pretty much known at this point, and Williams’ efforts coming off of a 13-point game against Wake Forest is a positive. But if North Carolina is to reach the heights scaled by the last two teams, Roy Williams is going to need consistency on the offensive end of the floor from Theo Pinson.

Thanks in part to injuries it feels as if we’ve been here for quite some time when it comes to Pinson: while the energy and effort he brings isn’t to be overlooked, by now shouldn’t he be a more consistent producer offensively? After scoring 19 points in the win over Ohio State the senior wing had eight against Wake Forest, and Wednesday night he scored five points on 2-for-6 shooting. Pinson’s certainly capable of being a double-digit scorer on occasion, as he’s done so four times this season, but North Carolina will need him to do so more often if they’re to make a run nationally.

4. Florida State’s late game decision-making left something to be desired.

Turnovers nearly did in the Seminoles especially late, when they made some suspect decisions with regards to passing the basketball. There was a home run attempt that sailed out of bounds, and there was also a cross-court pass picked off by Pinson that led to a Berry three-pointer to cut the deficit to one with 30 seconds remaining. Overall Florida State’s 15 turnovers were converted into 24 points by the Tar Heels, whose plus-12 advantage in points off turnovers made it possible for them to make a run and even take the lead in the second half.

Florida State was able to hang on, but that was a bit of a disappointment after the team did well in valuing the basketball in its loss at Duke. Given how tight the top of the ACC is likely to be, Florida State will need to make sure this was an anomaly — to be fair, they’ve been solid with regards to turnovers for much of this season — from a turnover standpoint.

No 13 UNC beats Michigan 86-71 in Big Ten/ACC Challenge

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina coach Roy Williams spent a sleepless night stewing over an ugly weekend loss, then showed his players the film of what happens when they don’t play with the toughness or intensity needed to joust with a top-tier opponent.

It’s too early to say if his 13th-ranked Tar Heels learned from it just yet, though they at least refound their shooting touch against Michigan.

Luke Maye scored 27 points to help UNC beat the Wolverines 86-71 on Wednesday night in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, earning a solid offensive showing days after a miserable output against Michigan State.

Joel Berry II added 17 points for the Tar Heels (6-1), who lost 63-45 loss to No. 3 Michigan State in the PK80 Invitational on Sunday night. That included them shooting a program-record-low 24.6 percent, making just 1 of 18 3-point attempts and meekly responding to a team that came after them defensively.

“I’m not one of those coaches that’s just going to say, ‘Oh it’s a bad game, well let’s go on,'” Williams said, adding: “You make those kind of mistakes and have people outwork you with more intensity and more effort, I think you’ve got to show them.”

The Tar Heels closed the first half on a 17-5 run for a 51-37 lead, then went a 17-2 run to blow the game open. And that 34-7 run over roughly 13 minutes turned a 34-32 lead into a 68-39 romp with more than 13 minutes left.

“We’ve had seasons where we’ve lost early and the rest of the season went well for us,” Berry said. “So it’s not time to panic, it’s just time to get better and start buying into the system and understand what’s going on.”

Moe Wagner scored 20 points to lead Michigan (6-2), which cooled quickly after a hot start and couldn’t keep up once UNC got rolling.

“You’ve got to guard and rebound the ball,” Wagner said. “We didn’t do both of them in the first half really well, so if you put yourself in a hole like that the first half, it’s really hard to come back.”

BIG PICTURE

Michigan: The Wolverines started with an efficient attack that spread the court, knocked down 3-pointers and caught UNC backdoor. Charles Matthews even banked in a 3 to beat the shot clock and cap an 8-for-8 shooting start. But the Wolverines shot roughly 35 percent from there, including 6 of 30 from behind the arc, with execution that frustrated coach John Beilein — who said his team lacked first-half “grit” and “got what we deserved.”

“I think North Carolina might be that good, and we’re definitely not that bad,” Beilein said. “But we just certainly played bad, poorly today. We’ve just got to take it.”

UNC: While the Tar Heels let loose some pent-up frustration, it helped, too, that they were back home for the first time in two weeks after an extended trip west that included a win at Stanford before three PK80 games in Portland, Oregon.

“It was a little bit of a relief on Monday morning when we got here,” said junior Kenny Williams, who had 12 points. “just because we were out there for so long.”

ROLLING AGAIN

Maye had eight points on 3-for-13 shooting against Michigan State, but made 11 of 16 shots for his fifth 20-point game this season.

“I kind of wanted to bounce back from our game against Michigan State,” Maye said. “I think all of us did.”

TIP-INS

North Carolina didn’t miss consecutive shots from the field at any point and shot 65 percent during that first half. … This was the first meeting since UNC’s 77-71 win in the 1993 NCAA title game that included Chris Webber famously calling a late timeout that the Wolverines didn’t have. UNC honored members of that ’93 team during a first-half timeout, too. … Michigan is 2-6 in Challenge road games. … UNC made 7 of 15 3-point attempts, with Berry and Kenny Williams each making three.

UP NEXT

Michigan: The Wolverines host Indiana in their Big Ten opener Saturday.

UNC: The Tar Heels travel to Charlotte to face Davidson on Friday.

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More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

No. 2 UNC rolls to 12th straight win, 89-62 over BC

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) No. 2 North Carolina kept taking the ball from Boston College. Marcus Paige finally saw it go through the net.

The Tar Heels won their 12th straight game, forcing a season-best 23 turnovers in an 89-62 victory over the Eagles on Saturday.

Paige had 12 points in his highest-scoring game in three weeks, hitting three 3-pointers after making just one in his previous four games. After swishing the first 3 he tried, he shot a look of relief toward the Smith Center roof.

“I want you to go to the gym, miss 20-some in a row, then make one and have the whole arena cheer for you, just so you know how it feels,” Paige said with a laugh. “I’ve never missed that many shots in a row in my life, so just to finally get people (cheering), it was very relieving.”

Brice Johnson had 17 points and 11 rebounds, and Joel Berry II added 13 points for the Tar Heels (19-2, 8-0 Atlantic Coast Conference). After shaking off a slow start, the ACC’s leaders routed the league’s last-place team by turning those takeaways into 30 points.

Eli Carter had 19 points to lead the Eagles (7-14, 0-7), who were without guards Jerome Robinson (wrist injury) and Darryl Hicks (concussion). They shot 44 percent and hit 10 3-pointers but couldn’t overcome that season-worst turnover total while losing both their eighth straight overall and eighth in a row in the series.

“I thought defensively, we played hard, just offensively, we turned the ball over,” coach Jim Christian said. “We’re really short-handed. … A lot of them were on-ball turnovers, ballhandling turnovers. That was the difference in the game, obviously.”

The Tar Heels took care of the easy part of their schedule, and now things are about to get tougher, starting with Monday’s trip to No. 16 Louisville. After facing no team ranked in the AP Top 25 through their first eight ACC games, the Tar Heels will have six against teams currently ranked during the month of February.

For Paige, a few shots finally started to fall. He finished 4 of 9 and was 3 of 8 from 3-point range, a drastic improvement over his last few games. He was 5 of 35 from the field and 1 of 22 from 3-point range during the four games that followed his 30-point outburst at Florida State on Jan. 4.

North Carolina took control of this one late in the first half, reeling off 15 straight points to build a comfortable lead. Johnson hit a jumper from the key one possession before he capped the run with two free throws that made it 39-23 with 3:45 left. Berry then pushed the lead into the 20s for the first time with his three-point play made it 50-30 with 15:03 to play.

A BIG GREEN ROOM?

Most of North Carolina’s students wore neon-green T-shirts and ski caps as part of the school’s recycling campaign, with the shirts made from recycled plastic bottles. It made for an odd juxtaposition with Tar Heels coach Roy Williams’ criticism a day earlier of ESPN’s “frickin’ green room” and how the network touts NBA prospects playing in college games.

TIP-INS

Boston College: The Eagles started what might be the toughest three-game conference road swing in the country. After this one, they go to No. 11 Virginia and No. 16 Louisville. Those three have an average rank of No. 6 in Ken Pomeroy’s advanced stat rankings.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels missed their first eight free throws and nine of their first 10. … Kennedy Meeks did not start because he was late to the team’s shoot-around. Isaiah Hicks started in his place, while Meeks finished with eight points in 15 minutes.

UP NEXT

Boston College: visits No. 11 Virginia on Wednesday night.

North Carolina: visits No. 16 Louisville on Monday night.

Follow Joedy McCreary at http://twitter.com/joedyap. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/joedy-mccreary

AP college basketball site: http://collegebasketball.ap.org

No. 2 North Carolina hangs on, but Paige’s struggles continue

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Entering the season, the question for No. 2 North Carolina was who would step forward alongside senior guard Marcus Paige to shoulder the load offensively. The most prominent answer to that query has been senior forward Brice Johnson, who’s emerged as an All-America candidate thanks to longer stretches of consistent play in the front court. And others have made strides as well, including guard Joel Berry II and forward Isaiah Hicks.

However, even with those developments North Carolina needs to be at his best if they’re to win the national title. Sunday afternoon the Tar Heels managed to hold off an improving Virginia Tech squad 75-70 in Blacksburg, but for the fourth consecutive game their feature offensive option struggled to get going.

Paige shot 2-for-10 from the field against the Hokies, and as the game wore on the senior didn’t look all too confident when it came to taking shots. Add in Berry’s 5-for-17 day, and the North Carolina perimeter attack was lacking offensively from a scoring standpoint. Over the last four games Paige is shooting 5-for-35 from the field, a far cry from what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from him throughout his college career.

The good news for UNC is that even with Paige’s struggles he remains a player to be respected by opposing defenses, and against Virginia Tech he tallied seven assists. During the current slump Paige has 20 assists to just six turnovers; he’s done a good job of not getting reckless in looking to end the cold shooting spell, instead allowing for others to make their mark offensively.

Against Virginia Tech Johnson posted yet another double-double, scoring 19 points and grabbing 17 rebounds, and Nate Britt contributed eight points off the bench. North Carolina has a host of options who can pick up the slack offensively on any given night, but there’s no denying that they need Paige to rediscover his shooting stroke.

After getting off to a good start from three this season the Tar Heels are shooting just 30.6 percent from deep, and against Virginia Tech they shot 3-for-23 with Berry responsible for all three makes.

That impacts spacing and the amount of room players such as Johnson and Kennedy Meeks have to operate in the paint, and if teams can sag defensively North Carolina loses that advantage. Against Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels experienced some offensive lulls as a result, and it nearly cost them the win.

That isn’t something you can pin solely on Paige, but he is North Carolina’s best shooter. Given his track record one would expect Paige to get going eventually, and when that happens the ACC’s best team becomes that much tougher to defend.