North Carolina (25-11) disguised its lack of size in the post with double downs and a swarming defense in building a nine-point halftime lead over the top-seeded Jayhawks. The Tar Heels forced 12 first-half turnovers – seven by KU big men Jeff Withey and Kevin Young – and converted those efforts into 11 points.
Despite shooting an ice-cold 26.2 percent (11-of-42) in the opening 20 minutes, UNC’s defensive approach held Kansas to an even worse 25 percent (7-of-28).
“I thought we were both ugly on the offensive end in the first half, but we were swarming so much defensively we were able to get some fast break opportunities,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference.
Even so, UNC’s 3-of-11 shooting display from beyond the arc was disconcerting for a team that has relied so heavily on the 3-ball over the past 13 games.
Sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo acknowledged that his team “relaxed a little” defensively to open the second half, thereby allowing Kansas to get comfortable in its offensive sets.
“In the second half we didn't quite have the same energy level and they perhaps had a little bit more,” Williams said. “They got into rhythm, started making shots. We couldn't stop them. I think their defense even fed off of that. When the ball started going in the basket, I thought their defense got even stronger.”
The result was a 29-8 Kansas run over the opening 10 minutes of the second half. The Jayhawks shot 62.5 percent after halftime and all but one of their 17 field goals were 3-pointers or scores at the rim. Kansas also dominated the boards, outrebounding UNC 21-12 and scoring eight second-chance points off seven offensive rebounds.
North Carolina’s shooting troubles remained consistent over both halves. UNC made two field goals in the final minute to improve its shooting mark to 35.5 percent in the second half and 30.1 percent overall
The Tar Heels missed 15 of their 21 3-pointers, due in large part to an active Kansas perimeter defense that often switched on ball screens. UNC entered the game shooting 40 percent on 8.5 made 3-pointers since going small. On Sunday, the Tar Heels shot 28.6 percent on six made 3-pointers.
“They just crowded the shooters,” freshman guard Marcus Paige said. “[Travis] Releford did a good job on Reggie. He would play him high, try to make him change his cut. Also they tried to pressure us knowing they had a great shot-blocker underneath to help them as a second line of defense.
“We did get some good looks and didn't knock them down. One time P.J. had a wide-open shot and kind of fumbled the ball. That's kind of how it went for us in terms of outside shooting.”
Hairston (15 points, 3-of-9 from 3) provided a simpler answer in the Tar Heel locker room: “We just didn’t make shots.”
Without the 3-ball working, the Tar Heels often penetrated only to find the 7-foot Withey ready to alter shots. McAdoo needed 19 field goal attempts to score 11 points, highlighting the difficulty in finding breathing room in the post.
“We just couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean,” McAdoo said.
The downside to UNC’s small lineup was evident over the weekend in Kansas City. Villanova rallied from a 20-point deficit on Friday to retake the lead during a 16-minute stretch when the Tar Heels were unable to make a 3-pointer.
Against Kansas, UNC’s strategy to counter its size disadvantage by doubling down was effective only until the Jayhawks warmed up from deep. Once the 3-balls started falling, the Tar Heel defense was stressed with help and rotation responsibilities.
Without any relief from long range on the offensive end, North Carolina eventually ran out of options.