Two Hall of Fame coaches have important tools they utilize in most close games and especially in NCAA tournament games.
This was on display last weekend when North Carolina survived a frantic finish against Washington and several other top teams lost games due to last minute blunders.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams reportedly tells his team that certain late game situations are “must stops”—as in “we must stop” the other team.
In addition, former Indiana coach and multiple national championship winner, Bobby Knight, has spent most of this week reciting an old mantra during various interviews: “Dumb loses more games than smart wins.”
Knight was referring to the plethora of late game mental errors that sent several teams home after last weekend’s games. The Tar Heels came very close to joining the group of late game blunderers.
Add to that the luck factor, with referees missing calls that seemingly changed the outcome of games, and you’ve assembled the NCAA Tournament Trifecta—good defense, smart play and good fortune.
Every team needs all three to hoist the national championship trophy.
To those ends, North Carolina big man John Henson was involved in a series of late game plays that ranged from brilliant to clumsy to not-so-smart.
He was a critical component in several “must stops”, including one where he deflected an inbounds pass to teammate Dexter Strickland with 5.3 seconds to play. Strickland was fouled and made both free throws, giving UNC a late three point lead.
On the next Washington possession, Henson went to catch the desperation three-point shot attempt and almost whiffed – the ball brushing his hand before going out of bounds and back to the Huskies.
On the Huskies’ last attempt at late game heroics, an over exuberant Henson could have been called for goaltending.
The call wouldn’t have altered the final outcome as Washington was down three and the last-fraction-of-a-second shot was a two-pointer. Nonetheless, Henson and his Tar Heel teammates used up a bit more of their good luck.
Those few mental errors aside, the North Carolina continue to use late game defense and “must stops” to secure comeback victories.
On Sunday, over the final 7:06 of the game, the Heels held Washington to 4-of-13 shooting, forced five turnovers and blocked two shots.
They needed good defense and smart plays at critical moments as the Huskies out-rebounded the regular season ACC champions 40-37, outscored them on fast break points (18-14) and points in the paint (40-34).
"Our defense has just gotten better and better," said UNC forward Tyler Zeller, "And it was important to us, again."
"We buckled down, and we played 'D' like we were supposed to; that's how we got the win," Henson said. "... And now, we just have to prepare to do it again."
Actually, the Tar Heels have been preparing for these plays all season.
Daniel Bolick, the senior member of UNC's "Blue Steel" team is in charge of practicing the play that led to Henson’s critical late-game deflection and Strickland’s steal.
Daily, the 5’10” Bolick tries to inbound the ball past the 6’10” Henson—a task made all the more difficult by Henson’s 88-inch wing span.
"The first two weeks of practice, he probably deflected 80 percent of all of my inbounds passes," said Bolick. "…it's a hard thing to really scout for, because you really don't know how much room he can cover until you experience it a couple of times."
Washington forward Justin Holiday didn’t know what to expect and Henson made the game-changing play with the Tar Heels clinging to an 84-83 lead.
While neither the NCAA nor North Carolina keep track of statistics for deflected inbounds passes, they do track points per game and field goal defensive percentage.
Both have played a role in the Tar Heels success and both may determine how much further they go in this year’s Big Dance.
It would come as no statistical surprise that defense played a role in North Carolina’s opening tournament victories as Long Island came in as the fourth highest scoring team in the land, averaging 82.7 points a game, and Washington was ranked third at 83.1 points per game.
The Tar Heels rank 17th nationally while scoring 77.7 per game and Sweet Sixteen opponent Marquette is 33rd averaging 75.5 points per game.
Behind the Golden Eagles are the eliminated teams Pittsburgh (49th), Notre Dame (36th), Louisville (38th) and Texas (37th). Since North Carolina averages fewer points per game than either team, the options were a) outscore them, b) play stingier defense or c) both.
The only two teams remaining in the Big Dance that score more points on average than the Heels? BYU (81.6) and Duke (81).
On the defensive side of the ledger, fellow ACC Sweet Sixteen participant Florida State leads the nation in field goal defense at 36 percent per game. North Carolina, not generally known as a defensive stalwart, weighs in at 40.5 percent, good enough for a solid 40th on the national list.
Other teams still dancing that are ranked in between the Tar Heels and the Seminoles include Kentucky (39.3 percent—11th), San Diego State (39.3 percent—12th), Kansas (39.6 percent—15th), UConn (39.9 percent—24th), Duke (40.1 percent—29th) and Richmond (40.3 percent—34th).
In the upcoming round that starts Friday for North Carolina, the goal will be to play hard and play smart.
“Must stops” will probably be a critical part of the Marquette game and, in all likelihood, any path to the Elite Eight and eventually the Final Four will require good defense combined with some “smart” plays and a dash of good luck.
So far, Roy Williams’ squad has managed to produce all three.