For about 40 minutes Monday night, and 16 minutes of game time, Northwestern looked to be in business. But a late first half run and general second half dominance lifted No. 9 North Carolina (4-1) past the Wildcats (3-1) in the semifinals of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, 80-69.
Northwestern started extremely well, hanging right with Carolina for the game's opening 16 minutes. Hot shooting propelled the Wildcats into the lead. With four minutes remaining in the first half, NU had hit 5 of its 8 three-point attempts.
The Wildcats' impressive start prompted incredulous tweets:
HELLO LEAD— Inside NU (@insidenu) November 24, 2015
But immediately, North Carolina stamped its authority on the game. Northwestern went cold, missing its final five shots of the half. Meanwhile, UNC found a rhythm, as Roy Williams' team pushed the pace off of the Wildcats' misses. The Tar Heels, down 35-29, went on a 14-1 run to end the half, and took a 43-36 lead into the break.
Just as it appeared Carolina would run away with the game early in the second half though, Tre Demps stepped up. The senior scored NU's first 10 points of the half, pulling Northwestern within two.
But the rest of the Wildcats could not keep up. UNC began to dominate the paint and pull away, and after the first five minutes of the second half, things began to unravel. Northwestern's offense went stagnant, and its shooters went cold. North Carolina used a 23-5 run to put the game to bed pretty early, and led by 20, 71-51, with eight minutes to play in the game. At that point, Demps was the only Northwestern player to have made a field goal after halftime.
A Demps three-pointer with under five minutes left and two McIntosh free throws cut UNC's lead down to 9, but a Joel Berry triple with just over two minutes remaining ended any hopes of a Northwestern comeback.
Here are three takeaways, plus some notes:
1. Northwestern goes zone
After experimenting with a 2-3 zone against Columbia on Friday, but struggling in it, Northwestern showed zone from the start against North Carolina, and never came out of it. The idea, presumably, was to mitigate UNC's physical advantage and the importance of individual matchups.
The Wildcats went to a zone during conference play last year to halt their 10-game losing streak, and had a fair amount of success with it, at one point winning five of six games, and four in a row. Towards the end of the year though, teams figured out the zone and began to exploit its weaknesses.
Monday night, in a way, was a microcosm of last season. Northwestern baited Carolina into some ill-advised first-half jump shots, and the zone seemed to be working. Northwestern tempted UNC to swing the ball around the perimeter, and tried to keep the ball out of the lane.
When the Tar Heels had success though, it was by finding Brice Johnson or another big at the foul line, and playing from there. That caused Northwestern to adjust, and perhaps over-adjust. The Wildcats seemed to focus so much on taking away the foul line area that the short corner and the opposite side wing began to open up for UNC. On other occasions, offensive rebounding was an issue.
It's not that playing zone was a poor decision from Collins. It was likely the approach that gave Northwestern the best shot at beating North Carolina. But the Tar Heels moved the ball well, played to their strengths, and took control of the game in the second half. The issue was that Carolina simply had too many strengths for the Wildcats to be able to neutralize all of them at once.
2. Contrasting tempos
Northwestern came into Monday's game averaging over 18 seconds per offensive possession. North Carolina, on the other hand, entered the game averaging just 13.9 seconds per offensive possession, the 10th quickest mark in the nation. The contrast was apparent Monday night.
The problem for North Carolina early on was that the Wildcats were making shots, and thus not giving the Tar Heels opportunities to run. When they did get those opportunities, they took advantage, both on the primary and secondary break, and when Northwestern was slow getting set up in its zone, Carolina made NU's defense pay.
But it wasn't until the final four minutes of the second half that Carolina's pace started to seem overbearing. The Tar Heels kept their foot on the gas pedal, and it was the secondary breaks that hurt NU. Northwestern would get back in transition, but in a zone rather than man, it can be difficult to run back to the defensive end thinking about running to a spot as opposed to thinking about running to and guarding the nearest man.
With the Wildcats' awareness slightly lacking, the Tar Heels were relentless, as they always are. Multiple Tar Heel players made sharp passes that led to layups, and UNC took the game to Northwestern while the Wildcats' offense continued to come up dry after the break.
3. Northwestern shooting
The one thing that kept Northwestern in the game early on was its outside shooting. But it wasn't just a question of making and missing shots. With Bryant McIntosh running the show expertly — he finished with a career-high 9 assists — Northwestern's ball movement in the first half was the best it's been all season. McIntosh was great off ball screens, and his decision making when he got into the lane was good.
Northwestern's hot shooting subsided after the break though, and its cooling off showed that the three-ball was the main reason the Wildcats were in the game early. McIntosh's effectiveness subsided, and he seemed bothered by Carolina's length. UNC is and was the better team Monday night, and without NU's 5-for-8 three-point shooting start to mask that, it showed in the second half.
- Nate Taphorn is an efficient offensive player, but against athletic teams, he simply can't hang. He also consistently looked lost on the baseline in NU's 2-3 zone. He picked up two quick fouls after coming into Monday's game in the first half, and exited without a point. He wouldn't score until late in the second half. With Gavin Skelly injured, and Taphorn ineffective, Chris Collins' rotation was strikingly thin.
- Northwestern was basically a three-man team Monday night. With freshman wing Aaron Falzon rendered ineffective by UNC's size and athleticism, aside from an abbreviated burst from Scottie Lindsey in the first half, McIntosh, Demps and Alex Olah were forced to carry Northwestern. That's a near impossible task against a top team like North Carolina.
- Olah finished with 10 points on 4-5 shooting, but Northwestern struggled to find him in the post, and against a deep rotation of bigs, Olah wasn't a consistent threat on offense.
- Northwestern will play Missouri at 6:30 p.m. CT Tuesday in the CBE Classic consolation game. The Tigers lost to Kansas State 66-42 in the first semifinal Monday.