UNC-Ohio State battle of two torrid defensive teams that battle inconsistency

By R.L. Bynum

COLUMBUS, Ohio — With two of the toughest defensive teams in the country who also have had consistency issues in a few stretches, it’s difficult to know what to expect when No. 20-ranked North Carolina and No. 12-ranked Ohio State battle for a Sweet 16 berth on Monday.

The No. 3-seed Buckeyes (26–7) lost three in a row and went 7–7 their first 19 games. The No. 6-seed Tar Heels (22–10) dropped four straight in late December and early January, and lost three of four in February. The latter stretch, though, was without starters Alyssa Ustby and Eva Hodgson.

“North Carolina is kind of similar to us in the regard of when they have had their highs, they are easily a top-10 team in the country,” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said. “Now they have had some days where they weren’t that, and we’ve done the same thing.”

If either team is playing its best in Monday’s 4 p.m. second-round NCAA tournament game (ESPN) on the Buckeye’s home court at the Schottenstein Center, the other will have trouble staying in the game without matching that.

“That’s going to be the interesting part is who can kind of show up and be the best version of yourself, because, boy, when they are really, really good, they are really, really good,” McGuff said of UNC. “I think the same about us, so I don’t know. I think it’s a really interesting matchup from that standpoint.”

Ohio State rallied from a 16-point first-half deficit before pulling away for an 80–66 first-round victory over James Madison. Carolina coach Courtney Banghart knows her team could have played much better in the Tar Heels’ 61–59 first-round win Saturday over St. John’s.

“We were hoping we would play better, so I think there was a chance for us to regroup,” Banghart said. “In November, you care what it looks like. In March, you don’t. So I had to learn that lesson myself and I had to then exude it to my guys — that it’s a win and I’d rather win in any way possible regardless. I’m sure Ohio State wasn’t celebrating how they played either. They are just glad there’s a win and they move on to play again.”

How each team deals with the disruptive defenses both have shown all season will go a long way toward determining which team advances. Ohio State is forcing 20.25 turnovers per game (17th in the country) and Carolina is creating 18.58 (41st). The Buckeyes are sixth in the country in turnover margin (+6.44 per game), with the Tar Heels 33rd (+4.1).

Anybody who saw Carolina struggle to score in the three games against Duke will know the challenge the Tar Heels face because Banghart says that Ohio State’s pressure defense is a little like what the Blue Devils apply.

“If they can score, then they will be pressing a bunch, so that will extend the floor,” Banghart said, contrasting to the way St. John’s packed in its defense. “Ohio State is going to be more aggressive at the rim. In March, I’m not going to worry about what we have to get better in. I’m going to worry about what to game plan and how to beat Ohio State.”

Carolina committed 13 turnovers against St. John’s after turning it over 14 times in the ACC Tournament loss to Duke. Against the Buckeyes, keeping that number low will be important.

“I think a big thing for us will be just taking care of the ball, because we know that we’re good when we can play with connected possessions, connected on offense, connected on defense,” Ustby, a junior forward, said. “So, just making sure that we can take care of it with a full court because we are aware of their full-court pressure that has disrupted a lot of teams. With that in mind, we want to be very cognizant about how we move together.”


Ustby offered another comparison that shows Carolina’s challenges, saying that the Buckeyes are like Michigan, who beat UNC 76–68 in Charlotte on Dec. 20, “just because they have some strong post presence. They have perimeter threats. Their style of play and their intensity reminded me of them.”

Ustby says that many UNC opponents have struggled with the Tar Heels’ relentless intensity on defense this season. The Heels will need more of the same Monday.

“We are very active with our hands, jumping passing lanes, just making it very difficult for other teams to feel comfortable running their offense or bringing the ball past the halfcourt line. I think that’s our big advantage there,” Ustby said.

One of the big targets for Carolina’s defense on Monday will be sophomore 6–0 guard Taylor Mikesell, who leads six Buckeyes averaging double-figure points at 17.2, with a team-leading 104 3-pointers on 40.6% shooting from outside the arc.

Hodgson, in her second year in UNC’s MBA program, says there are “layers” to UNC’s defense.

“You’re not just trying to get by one person; you’re trying to get by every single person,” Hodgson said of the challenges the Tar Heels present for opponents. “Once you get past one of us, there’s bound to be another one of us just standing right there waiting, whether it’s in the gaps or taking charges or whatever it is.”

The Tar Heels’ ability to switch from a big lineup to a smaller lineup made it tougher for McGuff to compare Carolina to other Big Ten Teams.

“When they go smaller, they would remind you of Maryland a little bit; really athletic, quick up the court, a really good scoring lineup creating great spacing,” he said of the No. 7-ranked Terps. “When they go a little bigger, probably like somewhere in between Maryland and Indiana. They are incredibly talented and well-coached, and we know we’ll have a real challenge tomorrow.”

Indiana is ranked No. 2 and beat the Tar Heels 87–63 in Bloomington, Ind., on Dec. 1.

McGuff praised Carolina’s ability to game plan against different offenses from game to game.

“They kind of look at your actions and try to figure out ways to take it away,” McGuff said. “And they have got really, really fast, quick athletic players who get their hands on a lot of balls and disrupt you, and so make it a little bit harder to run offense.”

The team that handles the tough defense with fewer mistakes will likely be headed to Seattle for the Sweet 16.

Note to readers: The NCAA doesn’t permit the media to videotape tournament press conferences but is supposed to upload the video to a website accessible to the media. It hasn’t uploaded the video of Sunday’s UNC press conference.

Columbus subregional

At the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio
Thursday’s play-in result

St. John’s 66, Purdue 64
Saturday’s first-round results
No. 3-seed Ohio State 80, No. 14 James Madison 66
No. 6 North Carolina 61, No. 11 St. John’s 59
Monday’s second round
Ohio State 71, North Carolina 69

(current ranking)
9WednesdayW, 91–59Jackson StateHome1–0
12SaturdayW, 75–48TCUHome2–0
16WednesdayW, 93–25South Carolina StateHome3–0
20SundayW, 76–65James MadisonHarrisonburg, Va.4–0
Phil Knight Invitational
24ThursdayW, 85–79OregonPortland5–0
27SundayW, 73–64No. 17 Iowa State Portland6–0
DecemberACC/Big Ten Challenge
1ThursdayL, 87–63No. 2 IndianaBloomington, Ind.6–1
7WednesdayW, 64–42UNCWHome7–1
11SundayW, 99–67WoffordHome8–1
16FridayW, 89–47USC UpstateHome9–1
Jumpman Invitational
20TuesdayL, 76–68No. 18 MichiganCharlotte9–2
ACC season begins
29ThursdayL, 78–71Florida StateHome9–3, 0–1 ACC
1SundayL, 68–65No. 4
Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, Va.9–4, 0–2 ACC
5ThursdayL, 62–58MiamiCoral Gables, Fla.9–5, 0–3 ACC
8SundayW, 60–50No. 10
Notre Dame
1–3 ACC
12ThursdayW, 70–59VirginiaCharlottesville, Va.11–5,
2–3 ACC
15SundayW, 56–47N.C. StateHome12–5,
3–3 ACC
19ThursdayW, 61–56No. 13 DukeHome13–5,
4–3 ACC
22SundayW, 70–57Georgia TechHome14–5,
5–3 ACC
26ThursdayW, 72–57PittsburghPittsburgh15–5,
6–3 ACC
29SundayW, 69–58ClemsonClemson16–5,
7–3 ACC
2ThursdayW, 73–62VirginiaHome17–5,
8–3 ACC
5SundayL, 62–55LouisvilleLouisville17–6,
8–4 ACC
9ThursdayL, 75–67SyracuseSyracuse17–7,
8–5 ACC
12SundayW, 73–55Boston CollegeHome18–7,
9–5 ACC
16ThursdayL, 77–66, OTN.C. StateRaleigh18–8,
9–6 ACC
19SundayW, 71–58Wake ForestHome19–8,
10–6 ACC
23ThursdayL, 61–59No. 4
Virginia Tech
10–7 ACC
26SundayW, 45–41No. 13 DukeDurham20–9,
10–8 ACC
MarchACC Tournament
2ThursdayW, 68–58Clemson Greensboro21–9
3FridayL, 44–40No. 13 Duke Greensboro21–10
NCAA tournament
18SaturdayW, 61–59 St. John’sColumbus, Ohio22–10
20MondayL, 71–69No. 12 Ohio State Columbus, Ohio22–11

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications


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