By R.L. Bynum
Trying to fix North Carolina’s defensive problems has been an ongoing process that hit another speed bump Wednesday night.
Armando Bacot didn’t care that he collected 21 points and a career-high 17 rebounds. He called the game embarrassing.
When Coach Hubert Davis’ decision to switch on screens defensively didn’t come with the needed communication and execution against a quick Notre Dame team (8–5, 2–1 ACC), it was the Tar Heels’ undoing in a 78–73 loss in South Bend, Ind.
“Our attention to detail wasn’t good,” Bacot said.
That lack of cohesive movement left Irish shooters open all night, and UNC (10–4, 2–1) gave up a season-high 13 3-pointers, led by Nate Laszewski’s six on his way to a team-high 20 points.
Whenever there was a ball-screen handoff to Laszewski, UNC was switching. The hope was to keep a defender on him and prevent him from getting open.
“From a defensive standpoint, we didn’t do what we talked about, what we practiced in practice,” Davis said. “As a result, you leave open a really good 3-point shooter.”
Initially, every Tar Heel switched except for Bacot, but Davis started to have everybody switch to avoid confusion. The open Irish shots kept coming as they shot 47.2% from the floor and 41.9% from 3-point range on the night.
UNC made a game of it by extending defensive pressure to full court and trapping the first pass, but that momentum came too late.
With Caleb Love and RJ Davis the players who would be applying the full-court pressure, Coach Davis was worried about doing it too much considering the minutes they played.
“We had to be strategic on when to pick up full court and be able to extend that energy,” Coach Davis said. “So, we made adjustments, we made changes and tweaks and sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t.”
By the time Love slipped his offense into overdrive in the second half with 13 of his 15 points, it was only enough to give UNC a brief second-half lead. He lamented the inability to make the switching work.
“We’re not really used to switching everything,” Love said. “But that’s no excuse because switching everything doesn’t require any skill. It’s just that we gave up too many 3s. I feel that we did take them lightly just because of their record.”
Bacot, who was held to five second-half points after starting at a point-a-minute pace for his first 16 minutes, could only shrug and wonder how the game played out the way that it did.
He refused to blame the loss on having to play more minutes because Kerwin Walton (COVID-19 protocols), Justin McKoy (COVID protocols) and Dawson Garcia (concussion) missed the game. He played 36 minutes and RJ Davis played 39.
“We’re in game shape; it was just flat-out an embarrassing loss today,” Bacot said. “We knew coming in, offensively it would be kind of hard to get into regular sets and we had to play a lot of freelance. We knew guys kind of sag off in the paint. But they weren’t even really sagging off in the paint. I mean, they really didn’t defend us well. And we didn’t play good defense, either, and they just beat us.”
The Tar Heels missed Garcia badly on defense, but his absence couldn’t explain the inability to get into passing lanes and deny the Irish drives. On the defensive switches, Notre Dame consistently exploited matchups with Brady Manek, who started in Garcia’s place. Manek couldn’t defend smaller, quicker Irish players.
Notre Dame forced a lot of failed help-side defense that led to many easy shots.
“We were trying to help too much on a drive instead of guarding the 3 and this is a 3-point shooting team,” Love said.
Coach Davis had another explanation for all of the open perimeter shots.
“They were open because there was a lack of talking, a lack of communication, a lack of effort, a lack of attention to detail and also a lack of being able to guard the ball,” Coach Davis said. “So it wasn’t help position; we were in the wrong position.”
After falling behind by 13 with 13:56 left after a 12–3 Irish run, a UNC lineup with Black and three guards and went on an 8–0 run with 3s from Love and Anthony Harris to cut it to five.
A Love 3-pointer started an 8–0 run and ended it with a driving bucket to give UNC a brief 67–66 lead with 3:28 left.
Hubert Davis said that good defense had led the Tar Heels to that point.
“It was a consistent change and we were able to take the lead,” said Davis, who was discouraged that his team couldn’t maintain that level of defense. “On the road against anybody, you have to be disciplined. You have to be sound on both ends of the floor. We just weren’t.”
After Laszewski and RJ Davis traded 3-pointers, the Irish led 72–70 with 1:43 remaining.
Prentiss Hubb made two of three free throws after flopping when he faked Bacot into the air to draw a foul with 44 seconds left. After Leaky Black missed a shot at the rim, Cormac Ryan’s two free throws pushed the Irish lead to 76–70 with 26 seconds left.
Manek and Love missed 3-point attempts before RJ Davis, who scored 19 points, made a 35-foot 3-pointer to cut the lead to three with seven seconds left.
Dane Goodwin put the game away with a pair of free throws with five seconds left.
Davis remembered something that Dean Smith often said about a mistake being good if you recognize it and learn and grow from it. The test for the Tar Heels will be whether they can learn from a frustrating night in northern Indiana.
“It can turn into a positive,” Davis said. “But if the next game or a week from now or a couple of weeks from now, we’re still talking about the same thing, it isn’t good.”
Notre Dame used a pair of 3-pointers to go on a 12–2 run to take a 29–19 lead with 9:21 left in the first half before RJ Davis’ 3-pointer stopped the run. A Manek follow shot cut the Irish’s lead to 34–31 with 4:22 left. Carolina could come no closer in the first half and trailed 39–35 at halftime.
The Tar Heels return home for their third game in seven days before getting seven days off.
Virginia (9–5, 3–1) is at the Smith Center on Saturday for a 1 p.m. game (ESPN). The Cavaliers beat Clemson 75–65 on Tuesday for their second consecutive road victory after topping Syracuse 74–69 on New Year’s Day. Virginia’s losses have come to Navy 66–58 at home, at No. 12 Houston 67–47, Iowa 75–74 at home and Clemson 67–50 at home.
Notre Dame 78, UNC 73
UNC season statistics
|5||83–55 exhibition win||Home||Elizabeth City State|
|9||83–67 win, 1–0||Home||Loyola Maryland|
|12||94–87 win, 2–0||Home||Brown|
|16||94–83 win, 3–0||Road||College of Charleston|
|20||93–84 loss, 3–1||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 3 Purdue|
|21||89–72 loss, 3–2||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 18 Tennessee|
|23||72–53 win, 4–2||Home||UNC Asheville|
|December (5–1, 1-0 ACC)|
|1||72–51 win, 5–2||Home||X — Michigan|
|5||79–62 win, 6–2, 1-0 ACC||Road||Georgia Tech|
|11||80–63 win, 7–2||Home||Elon|
|14||74–61 win, 8–2||Home||Furman|
|18||98–69 loss, 8–3||Las Vegas||Z — No. 16 Kentucky|
|21||70–50 win, 9–3||Home||Appalachian State|
|January (1–1, 1–1 ACC)|
|2||91–65 win, 10–3, 2–0 ACC||Road||Boston College|
|5||78–73 loss, 10–4, 2–1 ACC||Road||Notre Dame|
|8||Saturday, 1, ESPN||Home||Virginia|
|15||Saturday, 8, ACCN||Home||Georgia Tech|
|18||Tuesday, TBA, ESPN||Road||Miami|
|22||Saturday, 8, ACCN||Road||Wake Forest|
|26||Wednesday, RSN||Home||Boston College|
|29||Saturday, 2, ACCN||Home||N.C. State|
|31||Monday, 7, ESPN||Road||Louisville|
|5||Saturday, 6, ESPN||Home||No. 2 Duke|
|8||Tuesday, 9, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||Clemson|
|12||Saturday, 2, ESPN or ESPN2||Home||Florida State|
|16||Wednesday, 8, ACCN||Home||Pittsburgh|
|19||Saturday, 4, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||Virginia Tech|
|21||Monday, 7, ESPN||Home||Louisville|
|26||Saturday, 2 or 4, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||N.C. State|
|28||Monday, 7, ESPN||Home||Syracuse|
|5||Saturday, 6, ESPN||Road||No. 2 Duke|
Y — Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off; Z — CBS Sports Classic
Photo via @UNC_Basketball