UNC found the fight, and the set play, to beat Michigan State and make Sweet 16

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Hubert Davis was furious. And he had every right to be.

His top-seeded North Carolina team — at least for the first 12 minutes or so Saturday, during its NCAA Tournament second-round matchup vs. No. 9 seed Michigan State — couldn’t have looked much worse. Flat. Lethargic. “They punched first,” Davis said. “Their physicality, their will, their want-to … just overwhelmed us.” UNC trailed by as many as 12 early on, its season very much on the brink. The last time the Tar Heels had actually come back from a double-digit NCAA Tournament deficit and won? Over a decade ago.

Things, understandably, looked bleak.

Then a whistle blew. The buzzer sounded. A media timeout, gloriously gifted by the basketball gods. As Davis’ players jogged back toward their Spectrum Center bench — trailing 28-20 with 7:43 left before halftime — Davis silently stewed, pacing in his Carolina blue blazer. Five players sat, the rest huddled around them, awaiting Davis’ direction. What they got instead was an outburst, a head coach unleashing 12 minutes of pent-up frustration:

“Look,” Davis said, or rather demanded, “we can’t talk about any basketball stuff until we join the fight.”

Davis doesn’t use profanity, but he didn’t need to. “We were hearing it,” sophomore guard Seth Trimble said. Davis didn’t insult his players, but he clearly challenged them — specifically his bigs, Armando Bacot and Harrison Ingram, whom he said couldn’t stop Michigan State’s forwards. “Obviously that hurts, my head coach saying I can’t guard anybody,” Ingram said, “but that’s why I came here: to hear that stuff. And then we had to fire it up.” But Davis didn’t discuss any Xs and Os. Didn’t call any sets.

Because he didn’t need to.

As Ingram said, invoking the program’s most famous player: “We took it personal.”

What ensued is the stuff of March Madness lore, the single-game swings you look back on as turning points in a title run — and if this Tar Heel team, which ultimately won 85-69 to advance to the Sweet 16, does keep dancing? Then that timeout, Davis questioning his team’s soul, will be a key reason why. Over the next seven minutes and 43 seconds, North Carolina powered up, like Popeye after multiple cans of spinach, and scored 20 points … while only allowing three.

Halftime: North Carolina 40, Michigan State 31.

From down eight, to up nine. Just like that.

“That kind of brought it out of us,” Trimble said, grinning. “We just had to become the team we knew we were.”

Which — as anyone who has watched UNC this season knows well — is a team with a championship-caliber defense. The Tar Heels are currently No. 6 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and have been in that general range since December. For as good as UNC’s offense can be, led by first-team All-American R.J. Davis, that defense is the reason North Carolina fans are rightfully dreaming of Phoenix, the site of this season’s Final Four.

All it took was Davis’ decree, like a single flame igniting dynamite, to get back to that explosive level.

Want to know what that looks like, from an on-court level? It’s forcing three turnovers, seven misses, and blocking two shots in nearly eight minutes. It’s turning Tom Izzo — one of the best college basketball coaches of all time, a man who had only lost four of his 19 career games in this round — into a frustrated fan, albeit one with a sideline view. “We played so well the first 12 minutes, and then I don’t know,” Izzo said, glumly. “Give them credit. We played a good team.”

But in those last eight minutes before halftime, UNC was much better than good; it was phenomenal. And while the defense was the centerpiece, North Carolina’s offense finally joined the fight, too. Ingram — who ended the game with 17 points and five made 3s, his most since the first Duke game on Feb. 3 — started hitting shots. Bacot got fouled inside, and then made free throws. Even Paxson Wojcik, playing against his father, Doug, a Michigan State assistant, had a transition drive he kicked out to R.J. Davis for a corner 3-pointer.

Wojcik’s hand was already in the air before the ball fell through the net.

That 3-pointer cemented a 15-0 run — UNC’s first of that length in any NCAA Tournament game since a 2011 Sweet 16 win over Marquette.

“They called timeout right there, and the place erupted,” R.J. Davis said, beaming. “Those types of plays, I mean, those are momentum swings for us.”

And while the momentum pendulum did eventually swing back Michigan State’s way, it never got fully there. An 8-0 Spartans run early in the second half brought the game within two again … until UNC’s head coach found his game breaker.

One set play, that he ran over … and over … and over again.

“If you’re not gonna stop the play, (we’ll) run it as many times in a row,” Bacot said. “I think for the last eight minutes, we might have ran it every single time.”

“Pretty much, yeah, “added forward Jae’Lyn Withers, who scored back-to-back layups from that set. (Withers’ second put UNC up by seven with 7:49 left to play — a margin Michigan State never shrank.) “I mean, it was working … If a play is working, why would you go away from it?”

Hubert Davis didn’t.

The set is a variation of a Floppy action — one of the most common sets at any level of basketball, where a guard or wing uses screens underneath the basket to get open on the perimeter. In the variation UNC used — which appears to be Floppy Punch — once the wing player (in this case,  Trimble) gets the ball on the perimeter, the big who set him the initial screen (in this case, Bacot) then posts up and receives an entry pass.

From there, Bacot has options:

  • He can try scoring one-on-one in the post;
  • If a double comes, he can pass out to an open shooter (in this case, Ingram);
  • Or he can try hitting the baseline cutter (in this case, Withers).

Watch how Hubert Davis, from the sideline, points at Trimble to initiate the play. That’s a wide-open shot for Ingram, and Withers cleans it up nicely:

And here is UNC’s very next offensive possession, which is almost identical. In this case, Ryan points for Trimble to initiate, and Bacot makes a gorgeous feed:

And just for fun, why not switch things up … and run it from the other side of the court? This time, Ryan replaces Trimble as the wing, but the result is the same: Bacot scoring one-on-one:

“It’s just one of those things where, whatever’s working, we just hammer down to it,” Bacot said. “It’s really fun, because I feel like I was just getting whatever I wanted.”

How many times, realistically, can you expect an opponent to get beaten before they give up?

Which is what happened to the Spartans late. Withers even said he heard Michigan State players arguing with one another, a sign they were “falling apart.” By the end of another UNC run — this one 14-2, in the game’s final few minutes — it was over. Hubert Davis subbed in his walk-ons late, while Bacot pretended to strap on a championship belt on the bench.

Minutes later, as Bacot walked down a narrow pathway in the bowels of the arena, he pointed to an onlooking mob of reporters and smiled.

“I told y’all,” the big man said, smiling, before being ushered into UNC’s celebratory locker room. “We’re going to L.A.”

(Photo of Armando Bacot: Bob Donnan / USA Today)

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