The North Carolina Tar Heels might have the best front court in the nation, and tonight they proved it. With Phil Cofer and Michael Ojo sitting on the bench with injuries, senior Brice Johnson stepped up for UNC and dominated Florida State.
Boris Bojanovsky, Jarquez Smith, Chris Koumadje, and Montay Brandon were not only tasked with defending experienced and talented interior players, but they had to do so with a Florida State perimeter defense which couldn't stop a thing.
Pick out any segment of the game and you'll likely find an FSU guard getting beat off the dribble, and then a helpless FSU big man step up to cut off the drive. UNC did a great job finding the open bigs when FSU's rotations weren't tight enough and the guards failed to drop down. Other times the driver would shoot floaters, knowing that Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, or Joel James were there to clean up there misses.
All told, UNC grabbed 45% of their own missed shots, which is slightly above their season average.
"They seemed to take us to task on the boards," Leonard Hamilton bluntly stated after the loss. "I thought we did a very poor job of keeping Brice off the boards but to his credit, I thought sometimes we had him blocked out and he went over us with his athleticism."
The game began with yet another slow start as FSU's freshmen were clearly way too amped at the game's beginning. Coach Hamilton pulled Dwayne Bacon and Malik Beasley, but by then the Noles were down double digits, and would eventually go down 27-13.
But when the freshmen came back in, the Noles went on a roll. It wasn't either of the freshmen who sparked it, however, it was sophomore Xavier Rathan-Mayes.
XRM made 5-6 3s in the first half, on his way to 20 points. With that, the Noles were able to go into the break down just four, at 41-37.
In the 2nd half, the threesome of XRM, Bacon, and Beasley teamed up to score 19 straight for FSU, as the Noles took a 56-55 lead.
Of course, by that time Jarquez Smith had fouled out, and Bojo had four. Then Koumadje picked up his third foul, and very quickly added No. 4 on a technical when he punched the ball.
That's when UNC took over.
FSU couldn't stop anything, and eventually went with Montay Brandon at the 5 in an attempt to switch all ball screens to stop dribble penetration.
But nothing worked, and UNC scored a ridiculous 1.4 points per possession in the 2nd half.
"I think that really made the difference in the game. They exploited the fact that we didn't match them with their physicality and athleticism," Hamilton said in postgame when addressing the five-guard set that Florida State used down the stretch of the game.
In the end, the Tar Heels pulled away with a 106-90 win. FSU falls to 10-4 (0-2).
XRM led Florida State with 30 points on just 16 shots. Dwayne Bacon added 18 and seven rebounds, while Malik Beasley had 15 and eight. Benji Bell, who provided an early spark, ended the night with 10.
The good news is that FSU's offense has played at a high level for two straight games. The bad news is that the defense has been abysmal. If FSU's most talented players don't buy in on that side of the ball, then Florida State could get steamrolled in this early, tough stretch of ACC play.
Next up is a road trip to No. 11 Miami on Saturday.