CHICAGO– No. 24 North Carolina was desperate for a win on Saturday. The Tar Heels had lost three times already in its first ten games after entering the season as the No. 6 ranked team in the country. Saturday’s matchup against No. 12 Ohio State at the inaugural CBS Sports Classic was a must win game for the Tar Heels, even in December. As the old adage goes, pressure can burst pipes or make diamonds. North Carolina, behind strong performances from Brice Johnson and Preseason All-American Marcus Paige, put on a gem of a performance in an 82-74 win over Ohio State. Christmas came early for the Tar Heels.
“Thank God it’s Christmas,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said. “We were fortunate. I thought we did some really good things. I thought defensively we were pretty good.”
Johnson led the inside attack for North Carolina with 18 points and nine rebounds on an efficient 8-of-10 shooting from the field. The junior forward was just one beneficiary of the outstanding interior passing by the Tar Heels.
“We had good movement, movement of the ball and movement of the bodies,” Williams said. “I always say move yourself and move the ball intelligently, and I think we did that.”
Junior forward J.P. Tokoto was the floor general for North Carolina against Ohio State’s pesky zone defense. Tokoto scanned the floor and set up his teammates with six assists, five coming in the first half alone.
Two early fouls by Ohio State center Amir Williams left the Buckeyes vulnerable inside the paint. Four North Carolina forwards scored at least five points in the first half to help propel the Tar Heels to a 43-31 halftime lead. Ohio State’s centers, Williams and Trey McDonald, combined for just three points in the game’s first 20 minutes.
“You know, I’ve been saying this the last couple weeks, we need more production out of those guys,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. “It’s not what everybody wants to say, I need touches. Well, there’s other things we can do to impact that, and obviously we want to get an inside game established, but there’s got to be that element of consistency of knowing what we’re going to get at all times.”
North Carolina outshot Ohio State 51.5 percent to 37.5 percent from the field in the first half and outrebounded the Buckeyes 23-15. Ohio State’s leading scorer, freshman D’Angelo Russell, was held to just five points in the first half due to the defensive effort of Paige and Tokoto. The pair rarely gave Russell space to get his shot off and often disrupted pick-and-rolls before they even started.
Ohio State’s press and matchup zone turned the second half into a dogfight. Russell and senior guard Shannon Scott poked and deflected at balls with regularity from the top of the zone. The pressure defense, along with timely shots by sharpshooter Marc Loving, brought the Buckeyes within eight points late in the contest after trailing by as many as 18 points in the second half.
“All of a sudden at the end we started fouling about every possession and they were fouling, and our best free-throw shooters were missing free throws, and we turned it over, and then Kennedy (Meeks) missed a lay-up or maybe two inside six minutes, and it didn’t look good,” Williams said. “But we kept getting them to take one shot, and us rebounding it on the other end. I was very discouraged with the way we finished the half.”
North Carolina escaped with an 82-74 victory despite shooting just 37.5 percent in the second half. Paige finished with 16 points, but he struggled on 4-of-12 shooting from the field and missed several key shots in the closing minutes.
The longball kept Ohio State within striking distance. Almost half of Ohio State’s made field goals (25) were 3-pointers (10) as Russell and the rest of the Buckeyes settled for jumpers throughout the game. Russell is a dynamic guard, capable of penetrating a defense at will, but the freshman made just one 2-point field goal the entire game. The lefty freshman missed several opens looks down the stretch that he normally makes.
“D’Angelo is obviously a pivotal part of what we do,” Matta said. “He had some that really, really went in and out and I thought some good looks. The great thing about him is he wants to take the shot. He doesn’t remember the last shot. He says, hey, give me the next one, and I love that about him. I thought overall he had a pretty good command. Unfortunately, shots just didn’t fall for him.”
The Buckeyes lacked shot creators outside of Russell. Loving, a knockdown shooter, nailed five 3-pointers and led Ohio State with 19 points, but the majority of his looks were set up by teammates. Sam Thompson, an electric athlete and Whitney Young alum, ignited the United Center crowd with several thunderous dunks and two emphatic rejections. Thompson, despite scoring 17 points in his hometown, was frustrated with the outcome.
“It’s a big game, big-time venue, but at the end of the day, you’re not thinking about being back home and playing. I’m just thinking about winning the basketball game,” Thompson said. “I was very disappointed not in the sense that we just came up short but in the way that we came up short. This is the second time we’ve dug ourselves a big hole and tried to fight out of it. We did a good job fighting out of it, we did some things we wanted to do, but again, in the first half we weren’t really able to strap up, get a stop, get a bucket when we needed to, and that hurt us again.”
Despite coming away with its biggest win of the season, Williams still sees areas where his team can improve heading into conference play.
“There is not one phase that we can’t get a lot better at, which is good,” Williams said. “We need to shoot it better, we need to rebound it better, we need to defend better, we need to talk more on the defensive end. The other thing is that the kids got to have some pride and toughness because it’s a man’s game out there, and we missed an awful lot of easy shots today.”