Four Tar Heels found the net from behind the arc as UNC built a 28-11 lead with 8:16 remaining in the first half. North Carolina had connected of five of its first eight 3-pointers up to that point, and 76 seconds later, its lead had grown to 32-12.
“They know you're trying to stop their threes,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright told reporters during his postgame press conference. “They do a great job of making extra passes, hitting screeners for threes.”
It wasn’t a surprise that UNC was finding success from 3-point range. Villanova entered Friday’s second round game between the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds ranked 294th nationally in 3-point field goal percentage defense (36.6).
It was then that Wright made a defensive adjustment that would stall UNC’s momentum and allow his team to make an improbable comeback.
“They were switching the screens more and they were out denying on top of the key and made it hard for us to catch the basketball,” explained P.J. Hairston, who led UNC with 23 points on 7-of-11 shooting (5-of-8 from 3).
The Tar Heels found it difficult to even attempt 3-pointers over the next 16:06, attempting just four and missing all of them.
“They decided they were going to take away as many three point opportunities for us as possible,” Marcus Paige said. “That's where we score a lot of our points. So they tried to pressure us, push our offense out.”
When Reggie Bullock (15 points, 3-of-6 from 3) finally snapped the drought from deep with 12:10 to play, his corner 3-ball gave UNC the lead back at 47-45.
This time it was Roy Williams with a strategic adjustment to create more open looks.
“In the second half when we started making shots, we started changing our cuts and setting different back screens for [McAdoo] to get open, so they had to chase him, which left Reggie and me wide open,” Hairston said.
North Carolina converted six of its last nine 3-pointers to ultimately counter Villanova’s advantage in the paint. After the Wildcats cut UNC’s 9-point lead to just one with 2:14 to play, Paige delivered a clutch 3-pointer from the left wing to all but cement his head coach’s 700th career victory.
“That’s what our game is – shooting the ball,” Bullock said.
North Carolina finished 11-of-21 from behind the arc, marking the sixth time it has connected on 10 or more 3-pointers since going small.