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March 3, 2012

Clues to Blues

Fans obsess about Carolina opponents shooting 3-pointers, but jump shots alone have rarely, if ever, beaten the Tar Heels.

Austin Rivers' 3-pointer at the horn did the final damage in Duke's mind-numbing 85-84 victory at the Smith Center on Feb. 8, but the defeat could be attributed to UNC losing its poise at both ends of the court in the final 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

"We have to keep playing," sophomore Harrison Barnes said. "We tried to sit on the ball a little bit. We had so many opportunities to get back in that game -- if we had made two free throws or made a jump shot, got a stop or boxed out on an offensive rebound after the first shot.

"Little things like that could have taken the game in the other direction. … It wasn't so much physical as watching tape, seeing how you played that last five minutes of the game, seeing how you let that lead slip out of your hands. We learned a lot from that and hopefully can carry it onto the next game."

The sixth-ranked Tar Heels (26-3, 13-2) will get that other chance on Saturday at 7 p.m., when they play No. 4 Duke (26-4, 13-2) at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the final regular-season game of the season.

The winner will finish alone in first place of the Atlantic Coast Conference standings. Then each team will advance to play in the annual ACC Tournament, which will be held in Atlanta this season.

"When you're playing for a championship, it even becomes a bigger game," Tyler Zeller said. "I'm trying to focus more on that than the frustrations. Trying to go out and win a championship is something we're all looking forward to."

The Tar Heels do not want is to kill their own momentum down the stretch.

Standing around dribbling while the clock runs in a close game is akin to running a prevent defense in football: It will get you beaten as much or more than it will result in victories.

"We played great for 37 minutes, and then the last three minutes we let them do pretty much anything they wanted," said Zeller, who scored 23 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the first game. "We gave them a lot of easy baskets, and that is something we can't afford to do."

Carolina barely squeezed out a victory at Virginia recently when it tried to kill the clock instead of continuing to run its offense. The Tar Heels needed a couple of key Cavalier misses when their offensive momentum slipped away.

Outside of that game, the Tar Heels have done an excellent of learning from the experience against Duke. UNC has increased leads in the final minutes rather than ease off and let teams back into the game.

Of course, 3-pointers are a genuine concern when playing Duke. There is no denying this. Duke went 14-of-36 from 3-point range and Carolina went 1-of-6 from behind in the line in the earlier game.

Nonetheless, Williams still is not seeking to match Duke 3 for 3. He would prefer to emulate former UNC football coach Bill Dooley's philosophy when it came to rushing the ball versus passing the ball.

"I always wanted to throw it less and enjoy it more," Dooley frequently said.

The same can be said of how Williams views 3-point shots. He wants Carolina to guard Duke tougher along that line, and he would like for UNC to make a few more, but he's seeking a balanced offense from his team more than a heave-a-thon.

"We do have to get out and guard the three better," Williams said. "We have to get closer to make them more challenged. You're not going to stop Duke from shooting 3-point shots. That is what they practice every day.

"It's hard to stop us from blocking shots or rebounding the ball or running the ball. That is what we work on every day. We have to do a much better job of getting closer to the shooter, making sure we get a hand up on the shot, not giving a pose after you have given a shot."

The other factor, one people rarely discuss, is the best defense against a jump-shooting team is a great offense. The more Carolina runs and continues to run, the more frequently the Tar Heels will score easy baskets and, just as important, the weaker the Blue Devils' legs will grow.

Tired legs are a potent defense against jump shots and free throws.

This is one of the reasons the Tar Heels' philosophy, which has been a thread that runs from the early years under Dean Smith to today's teams coached by Williams is to trade high-percentage inside shots for jumpers by the opposition.

Yes, the Tar Heels want to guard particular players when they are shooting 3-pointers, but of equal importance, UNC wants to force jump shots and rebound the initial miss to deny second attempts.

Smith had a master's degree in mathematics, and the numbers did not lie for him. If his teams could more high-percentage inside shots and force the opposition to take less-effective outside attempts, shots that are defended and misses rebounded the Tar Heels prevailed more often than not.

"There is not a magic number, but I do want us to make more 3s," Williams said. "The team is trying to get good balance. I don't think it would be good for us to shoot 36 3s. That takes the ball away from a guy who is shooting 55 percent in the lane, that takes away from us getting to the foul line so much.

"We need the ball to go inside, and we need to be extremely effective inside. Not just Z. We need John [Henson] be effective inside. We need Harrison to be effective inside. We need Z to be effective inside. And we need to get some balance with Harrison, Kendall [Marshall], Reggie [Bullock], P.J. [Hairston], making some shots from the outside as well. That was such a big disparity."


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