The scouting report on Valparaiso (0-2) suggested a team short on size and experience, but one that received strong play from its backcourt. The Crusaders lived up to that billing on Sunday in successfully attacking the Tar Heels (3-0) with dribble-drive penetration but ultimately falling short amongst UNC’s treetops.
North Carolina utilized a 9-0 first half run to break open a 22-22 ball game, but Homer Drew’s squad entered the locker room trailing only 38-31 at intermission. UNC stepped on the gas in its initial second-half 23-8 run en route to a 61-39 lead. But the Crusaders charged back behind Brandon Wood’s 30 points (12-of-19 shooting, 6-of-10 on 3-pointers) and Brandon McPherson’s 20 points (7-of-14, 4-of-6 from long range).
Valparaiso’s 15-3 run cut UNC’s margin to 12 points with 7:33 left to play, but the Crusaders would get no closer than nine points down the stretch.
The Tar Heels shot 56.1 percent (32-of-57, 6-of-15 on 3-pointers) from the floor, while holding Valparaiso to 43.3 percent (29-of-67, 12-of-27 on 3-pointers). North Carolina also dominated the boards, 42-23.
Thompson led UNC with 20 points and eight rebounds, while Ed Davis (16 points, six rebounds), Larry Drew (13 points, six assists, four turnovers) and Tyler Zeller (12 points, five rebounds) also broke into double-digits. Marcus Ginyard had an off-night, scoring as many points as turnovers (5) while adding six assists.
INSIDE THE GAME
When North Carolina jumped out to a 67-43 lead with 11:55 left in regulation, everyone in the stands felt as though UNC was well on its way to a 3-0 record. But apparently there were some Tar Heel players who may have felt the same way.
Valparaiso outscored Carolina 32-17 over the next 10 minutes, cutting its deficit to a mere nine points with just under two minutes to play. The mental lapses down the stretch created a less-than-jovial Roy Williams’ press conference and a solemn locker room.
“I think we’re all trying to play hard, but at times we lack a little bit of intensity,” wing Will Graves said. “If we could focus and give great intensity at the same time, we’ll be great. But it’s a learning process. Valparaiso is a great team; they fought hard.”
Valparaiso were tabbed eighth in the Horizon League’s preseason media poll this fall, due in large part to inexperience and youth. Four of the five Crusaders that played over 20 minutes on Sunday were participating in just their second game under Homer Drew’s direction.
“It really set us to reality that we’re not maybe as good as we think we are, so we’re going to have to buckle down in practice starting on Tuesday,” Davis said.
That reality should have been made crystal clear when the Tar Heels defeated a hapless Florida International squad by 16 points in their season opener. Regardless, much more difficult opponents will quickly arrive on the schedule, starting with Ohio State on Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
When Graves was asked if this team was ready to go to New York to face a pair of elite squads in the 2K Sports Coaches vs. Cancer Classic later this week, the junior wing replied, “Not if we play like we played today.”
Deciphering the Zone
When Valparaiso took the floor for the opening tip, Homer Drew sent out a starting lineup consisting of four guards and one forward. That one designated post player was Cory Johnson, who stood all of 6-foot-7 and fully looked it next to UNC’s Thompson and Davis.
But by employing what Larry Drew termed as an “offset” 2-3 zone – with the guards alternating in taking the point position – the Crusaders held North Carolina to just 25 shots in the paint. For reference, Valpo attempted 28 field goals in the paint.
“We definitely didn’t do a good enough job against their zone – as well as we could have or should have,” Ginyard said. “That’s something we’re definitely going to have to work on.”
The Tar Heels clearly struggled in their zone offense, despite shooting 56.1 percent. Graves indicated that his squad needs to increase its movement, with perimeter players screening more and post players flashing to the heart of the defense more often.
“It was kind of an awkward defense, but we’re going to see a lot more of that come New York or the ACC or tournament time,” Drew said. “Teams are going to scout us and look back and see what works against us… The earlier we see it and the more we see it early on, the more it’s going to help us in the long run.”
Until North Carolina’s backcourt proves it can hurt opposing defenses from the perimeter, more and more teams will defend UNC with a zone look. But in the meantime, the Heels have to execute crisply to find the soft spots in those zone schemes to make opponents think twice in their approach.
More Praise for Deon
Thompson scored 12 points in the first five minutes and 58 seconds after halftime, guiding Carolina to a 23-8 spurt and a 22-point lead. That type of production is what Roy Williams expects out of his senior leader, but it’s what happened to Thompson in the first half that impressed the seventh-year UNC head coach the most.
Official Karl Hess called the Torrance, Calif. native for a contact technical foul with 4:23 remaining before intermission after Thompson became tangled up with a Crusader under the basket. The call apparently focused on the senior bumping his opponent’s head during the untangling process.
“I was probably more encouraged today than any other game, because in the past, he might have had that adversity and not bounced back as well as he did today,” Williams said. “I thought he really did some good things in the second half.”