CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP)—North Carolina coach Roy Williams has always had a never-satisfied attitude when it comes to defense. These days, however, he sounds oddly pleased.
The second-ranked Tar Heels held Dayton to 31 percent shooting while blocking eight shots and tallying 10 steals in their 81-51 win on Sunday. It was their ninth straight victory and sixth in a row by a lopsided margin.
“They’re working really hard in practice,” Williams said. “They’re starting to take more pride in what they’re doing defensively. Each and every day, they’re understanding more what the defensive end of the floor can mean for them.
“When you’re holding teams to (22 percent shooting) in the first half, you’re going to be OK regardless of what you do on the offensive end.”
That wasn’t much of a problem, either. Tyler Hansbrough scored 17 points while freshman Brandan Wright added 16 for North Carolina (12-1), which had 11 players score and shot 53 percent. Wayne Ellington was the other Tar Heel in double figures with 15 points and three 3-pointers against the Flyers (10-3).
Williams has never doubted his team’s ability to score, saying before the season that it could challenge the storied program’s season scoring record. Defense, he has always preached, is what can turn a very good team into a championship contender.
He’s getting some early signs of progress. North Carolina has held its last five opponents to 37 percent shooting or less.
The latest strong performance came with Sean May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants—the trio that led the Tar Heels to the 2005 NCAA championship— sitting behind the bench and having their numbers hung in the Smith Center rafters at halftime among the “honored” jerseys. Only seven players have their jerseys retired at North Carolina, including Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Antawn Jamison.
This year’s team is hoping to end the season the same way as May, Felton and McCants did two years ago.
“We’re starting to realize our potential and understanding when we execute offensively and defensively what this team is capable of,” sophomore Marcus Ginyard said. “At the beginning of the year, people who were winning (the team’s) defensive award were winning by nine, 10 or 11 good plays on defense. And now they’re winning by two or three. It’s really starting to show.”
The Tar Heels pressured the perimeter and swatted shots inside to make things difficult on the Flyers. Dayton shot 7-for-32 (22 percent) in the first half and finished the game shooting 31 percent. The Tar Heels also took a 44-31 rebounding edge, including 33 on the defensive end.
Marcus Johnson and Brian Roberts each scored 14 points to lead the Flyers, but they shot a combined 11-for-30.
“We can definitely feel it,” said Wright, who went 8-for-9 from the field and had six rebounds. “There’s not a lot of teams in this country that have 10 or 12 guys like we have. So practice is real competitive and we take pride in stopping people on defense and not letting guys score on us.”
Dayton coach Brian Gregory said he could see a difference between watching the Tar Heels’ first few games on tape and seeing them Sunday.
“It’s a different team,” he said. “I think they’ve pinpointed what they need to get better at and they’re doing a good job of doing it. … What they do is they force you to make a basketball play on every single possession. And unfortunately in this day and age, there’s just not a lot of guys that can do that all the time. And maybe a couple of them are playing on their team.”
The Tar Heels jumped to a 12-2 lead in the opening minutes and used a burst late in the half to take a 34-18 lead. The Tar Heels steadily increased that margin, getting 3-pointers from Reyshawn Terry and Wes Miller to make it 54-27 with about 13 minutes left.
The lead ballooned to as much as 36 points late, marking the Tar Heels’ sixth straight lopsided victory. Since beating Kentucky 75-63 on Dec. 2, North Carolina has won the six games by an average margin of 33 points. It’s enough to give May a familiar feeling.
“The only difference really is they’re young compared to our last year,” said May, now in his second season with the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats. “They’re really young and it’s going to take them some time. But I think they’re more far along than we were when we first came in. That team, they’re going to do some special things.”