Late in the second half, Dimitri Batten crumpled to the floor like he had just run into a brick wall, falling victim to a monster screen set by University of North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks. Groaning, he rose to his feet, just about summing up how Saturday’s game went for the Eagles. As the game went on, Conte Forum sunk, a pit in the stomach.
The crowd could see the writing on the wall well before the final whistle, well before Batten tumbled to the hardwood. With each offensive rebound, rim-rattling dunk, or display of brute strength on the block, the pit deepened. It seemed like an endless loop, with the Tar Heels gleefully dumping the ball into whichever one of their post players drew the matchup with Patrick Heckmann or Eddie Odio.
UNC handed the Eagles a 79-68 defeat, the team’s ninth loss in 10 ACC games. By the time the final buzzer sounded, the team’s energy had been sapped, drained from an afternoon battling a seemingly unstoppable force. Despite BC’s hot start and a brilliant game from star guard Olivier Hanlan, UNC’s prowess on the boards in the second half, dominance in the paint, and championship-caliber effort ultimately led the Tar Heels to victory.
Reclaiming the Boards
For the season, UNC ranks second nationally in rebounds per game (43), buoyed by an impressive 12.7 offensive boards per contest. A more complete consideration of the numbers, however, unearths a hidden weakness amidst UNC’s supposed dominance on the glass. While they manage to grab a impressive 40.5 percent of all available offensive rebounds—good enough for fourth in the nation—the Tar Heels only grab 70.4 percent of available defensive rebounds, a mark surpassed by more than 200 teams.
Despite their overwhelming size advantage in Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and Hicks—in addition to that trio’s excellent vertical leaping ability—they struggle with preventing second chance opportunities. The issue manifested itself throughout the first half of Saturday’s game. With Dennis Clifford playing only eight minutes due to foul trouble and the six-foot-five Heckmann the nominal power forward, as a team, the Eagles amassed six offensive rebounds, leading to seven second-chance points.
Bench stalwarts Garland Owens and John Cain Carney spearheaded the gritty effort, helping BC head into the half tied 36-36. The second half offered a different story, with the massive Tar Heels frontline recognizing their advantage and gobbling up any rebound in sight, allowing the Eagles to grab just one offensive rebound. Recommitting to physical box outs, they turned the tide of the game by reasserting their physicality.
On the other end of the court, as expected, UNC crashed the offensive boards with reckless abandon. The Tar Heels collected 12 offensive boards, led by Johnson’s five. Showcasing their elite skill, they managed to rebound five of their nine missed field goal attempts during the second half.
Dominate the Paint
Before tip-off, UNC coach Roy Williams altered the starting lineup that he had gone with during the entirety of ACC play, inserting power forward Hicks into the squad in place of 280-pound center Meeks. “The reason we chose to go a little smaller was because their lineup is a little smaller,” said Williams after the game.
At the time, the move seemed quite bold, given that Meeks ranks second on the team with 12.7 points per game and leads the team with eight rebounds per game. However, it provided immediate dividends and proved to be a boon for UNC throughout the afternoon, with Hicks dropping a career-high 21 points in a career-high 28 minutes. His ability to match up with Heckmann on the perimeter allowed the Tar Heels to play two post players at all times, avoiding the deployment of a smaller lineup and ensuring that they could focus on what they do best on offense: taking the ball straight to the basket.
The Tar Heels rattled off 46 points in the paint on Saturday, amid an endless parade to the front of the rim. Some of the points were on drives from the perimeter, but the vast majority came on old-fashioned post-up basketball. Johnson and Hicks combined for 41 points, bullying the smaller BC defenders on the block and getting any looks that they wanted.
In addition, the Tar Heel big men got numerous easy looks at the rim on dump-off passes from their perimeter players and on offensive rebounds. The pounding in the paint led the Eagles to foul frequently, putting UNC on the line for 27 attempts. Hicks attempted 11, while attack-minded wing J.P. Tokoto attempted eight. Hearkening back to the early days of basketball, UNC made just one 3-pointer, getting a staggering 83.5 percent of their points in the paint or at the line, winning the game in a show of sheer physical strength.
Championship Caliber Effort
While a compilation of numbers can tell you plenty about basketball, what ultimately completes the game is its human component. Players’ motivations, desires, and competitiveness transcend things like rebounding rate or points in the paint. When the game is close in the final minutes, the outcome is not determined by a player’s statistics page but by his heart and by how he embraces the moment, secure in the knowledge that the countless hours he has spent honing his craft will help carry his squad to victory.
Jim Christian echoed this sentiment in the press conference. “The last five minutes is a byproduct of how much work you put in,” he said. He clarified that this work was not simply the effort given on the court in that specific crunch time moment, emphasizing that he meant the lifetime of shooting drills, dribbling practice, and film study.
He described the mentality of a winning player in that situation. “When you get to that mark, you’ve got to put in enough work where you’re unwilling to lose,” said Christian. Addressing why his squad has faltered in crunch time against Virginia, Louisville, and again on Saturday, Christian was unflinchingly blunt. “They put in more work than us,” he said. “When we put in that much work, when we invest in ourselves, we’ll win those games.”
To win in the pressure cooker that is the ACC, hard effort and hustle on the court are simply not enough, as Christian responded to questions about the Eagles’ intensity during the game. “That’s as hard as our whole team can play, but just that is not going to win at this level,” he said.
The winner’s mentality stems mostly from factors outside an individual game. Confidence and the belief in oneself, the resolve to not let your team lose, must be present on top of a determination to give everything on the court. There is no room for doubt on the court in those final moments, no room for panicked thoughts when the ball finds you. A champion is one who embraces the moment, drawing from deep within his reserves, feeding off of the pressure in order to take his team where all teams want to go.
As currently constructed, in Christian’s mindset, the Eagles already give 110 percent on the court. Now they just need to develop that confidence, a sense of the moment and a sense of when to rise to the challenge at hand. “You’ve got to have enough stuff invested in the bank where you deserve to win that game, where you don’t have doubt,” he said. “And we have that doubt.”
Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Editor