The Hoosiers set the tone defensively in the first half Wednesday night in their win over No. 3 North Carolina.
The Tar Heels entered Wednesday night’s matchup against No. 13 IU averaging nearly 93 points per game. Against the Hoosiers, they managed just 67.
The defense suffocated the Heels’ offense from the start of the game, and the Hoosiers never looked back in the 76-67 victory. Even when the 17-point first half lead dwindled to just four in the late stages of the game, the defense picked itself back up.
“Just taking away their strengths,” junior guard Robert Johnson said. “Coach Judson did a great job with the game plan and he gave us a break down of each thing every guy liked to do. We just wanted to take those away and make it tough for them.”
Junior guard Robert Johnson set the tempo for IU defensively as he and the rest of the Hoosier backcourt were tabbed with guarding standout UNC junior guard Joel Berry II.
Berry came into the matchup averaging over 17 points per game and had been blowing by offenses on his way to the way to the rim all year long. Johnson and the Hoosiers limited Berry to just eight points on 3-of-13 shooting.
“Just containing him early” Johnson said about stopping Berry. “He’s a guy that likes to get to his spots and that’s something we wanted to contain from the jump and I thought we did a good job of taking that away.”
Johnson recorded three steals in the first half to keep UNC on its heels defensively, pressuring Berry, guard Nate Britt and forward Justin Jackson early around the perimeter. North Carolina only turned the ball over 12 times all night, but that’s not where the Hoosiers found their success.
The Hoosiers continuously moved their feet on defense to keep opposing players in front of them, getting a hand in nearly every shot opportunity UNC put up.
The Tar Heels shot just 16 percent from the field in the first seven minutes.
UNC is a team that likes to go up and down the floor quickly and flourishes in the open court after forcing a turnover. The Hoosier offense was stable enough, even though they recorded 16 turnovers. Luckily, the Tar Heels were only able to grab 16 points off Hoosier mistakes.
IU Coach Tom Crean said transition defense was going to be key if the Hoosiers were to stop the Heels, and UNC found itself with just two fast break points by game’s end.
“I think the biggest thing is the start of the game,” Crean said. “We didn’t give up many fast break points in the first half and that was huge. The key was going to be that we would continue with that.”
Crean also touched on rebounding, as the two squads came into Wednesday night as two of the top rebounding teams in the country.
North Carolina has hit the weak-side board well all season, and it was imperative for IU to get bodies on them.
The night finished with each team tied at 37 in the rebounding department. Johnson and junior guard James Blackmon Jr. combined for 15.
“Guard rebounds were going to be huge,” Crean said. “I decided to ride with the three guards tonight and I said ‘you know what? If we don’t rebound, we’re not winning’ and we knew that the guard rebounds were going to be huge in this game. They are so physical when that shot goes up that if you don’t match that and aren’t fighting them for that position, you have no chance.”
All night long the Hoosiers out-hustled the Heels, and the crowd was a large factor in what was the 21st straight home win for IU. Hoosier bodies were flying all over the hardwood and fighting for loose balls on numerous occasions.
Crean said that the preparation for this game was mental with lots of film and walk-through’s in practice. Strong defense turned into positive offense for the Hoosiers, and they were able to find success at home against the team that ended their year last season.