Thursday, March 9, 2017

Hicks' efficiency, defensive synergy push UNC into semis at ACC Tourney

Isaiah Hicks goes up to lay in two of his 19 points as North Carolina reached ACC Tournament semifinals with commanding 78-53 win over Miami. (Photo by David Welker/Atlantic Coast Conference, used with official permission)

BROOKLYN -- Roy Williams has frequently mentioned the need to have a great defense when making a championship run. In fact, the value the Hall of Fame coach placed behind the defensive side of the basketball was the impetus behind North Carolina's "lock in" mantra during last season's NCAA Tournament and run to the national championship game.

Months later, with an Atlantic Coast Conference regular season crown firmly in tow and with prospects of adding to the accolades ranking as strong as they did at this point a year ago, Williams' advice has once again been heeded.

Taking control of the game with a 12-3 run early in the second half, the Tar Heels held Miami to just 30 percent shooting from the floor in the final stanza, pulling away to score a decisive 78-53 victory over the Hurricanes in the first of four ACC Tournament quarterfinal matchups at Barclays Center.

"We just had to settle down, really focus on defense," said Isaiah Hicks, whose 19 points led four double-figure scorers as UNC (27-6) advanced to Friday's semifinals, where they will face either Louisville or Duke at 7 p.m. "We just had to learn from our past mistakes at Miami."

"It was better in the second half," Williams said of the total defensive effort. "It really was. (In the first half) We gave them too many drives and too many open shots. I thought we were much better in the second half, I'd go six or seven (out of ten)."

Spotting Miami (21-11) an 11-6 start, UNC recovered quickly, using Hicks' efficiency to regain a lead they would never surrender, going ahead with a 15-3 run. The senior forward, who supplemented his offense with six rebounds, was perfect from the floor in the opening stanza, scoring 13 of his 19 points before halftime by making all three of his field goal attempts and all seven of his shots at the free throw line.

"I thought Isaiah was active," said Williams. "We needed to get the ball inside after the way they manhandled us the last time. But Isaiah was huge for us, and I think that was really good."

The Hurricanes would not go quietly into the locker room, however, scoring the final seven points before the horn by capitalizing on rare mental miscues on the part of the Tar Heels, turning a 12-point deficit into a much more manageable 34-29 margin at the intermission. Miami broke the ice to start the second half as well, pulling within one possession after a Kamari Murphy layup on the first possession of the period. But UNC tightened up, forcing the Hurricanes into contested and ill-advised looks while establishing their vaunted transition game to form a double-digit cushion they let slip back into single digits only twice for the remainder of the contest.

Justin Jackson added 12 points for the Tar Heels, who also got 11 points, five assists and three steals from Joel Berry II, plus ten points and seven rebounds from Kennedy Meeks. Bruce Brown was Miami's lone double-figure scorer, posting 21 points to lead all who took the floor. But it was the defensive intensity that fueled UNC's win Thursday, and it stands as the primary focus if a championship repeat is to be accomplished.

"We just have to prepare to play defense," Hicks reiterated. "As Coach always said, he's never seen a team make it that far without playing defense. I would say that should be our biggest focus, and it shows. When we start really amping it up on defense, that's when we start to make the run, that's when we start to take the lead."

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