ESPN's commentators openly expressed doubt about coach Kevin McMillan's decision to slow down the #13 UT-Martin Skyhawks' first round game against the #4 North Carolina Tar Heels in the 2014 NCAA Tournament yesterday.
The goal was clear enough - to limit possessions and force UNC to execute in the halfcourt - but it was a dramatic departure from what they've done all season en route to a 24-7 record, a risk that most teams entering the tournament aren't willing to take.
Entering the tournament, UT Martin played at the 34th highest pace in the nation and was third in the nation in scoring with 84.6 points per game. They gave up inches at every position to North Carolina, theoretically putting them at a serious rebounding disadvantage - they were already eighth in the Ohio Valley Conference in rebounding percentage.
Heather Butler expected to give UNC a battle
UT-Martin star Heather Butler offers a guest blog about making the tournament and rising to the challenge of facing a bigger program.
But the outside-the-box thinking worked brilliantly as UTM fell just short of scoring the biggest upset of the 2014 NCAA Tournament so far in a 60-58 loss to UNC in Chapel Hill. And a closer look at UT Martin's statistical profile reveals the wisdom of McMillan's strategy: although the assumption was that UT Martin was playing away from their strengths by slowing the game down, McMillan was essentially playing the numbers.
The Skyhawks entered the game shooting 36% from the three point line this season (30th in their nation) and an OVC-leading 39% from deep during conference play; in contrast, UNC shot 32.6% from long distance (120th in the nation) and didn't help themselves from the free throw line by shooting just 66.7%. Compounding things for UNC is that they're sometimes turnover prone as a result of being over-aggressive; in contrast, UTM has a pair of Nancy Lieberman Award nominees in seniors Heather Butler and Jasmine Newsome who were more efficient and experienced ball handlers than anyone on UNC's roster.
In short, while it was a risk for UTMartin to change the way they've been playing all season, it was a well-reasoned gamble in that they forced North Carolina to pay a higher cost than normal for their somewhat inefficient style of play. All UTM had to do was hit threes and limit turnovers themselves to maximize their own possessions and limit opportunities for UNC to run in order to make the strategy work.
They did exactly that, temporarily taking the home crowd out of the game in the process.
Sure the Skyhawks got beat badly on the offensive boards, but that was a perfectly reasonable concession give the size disadvantage - they weren't going to do much about that. They essentially just focused on things they could control.
Offensively, UNC was visibly flustered by UTM's combination of zone defenses that denied penetration and forced UNC to moved the ball to find scoring opportunities. Defensively, despite a perceived advantage in athleticism and size for the Tar Heels, Skyhawks guards faced little resistance in driving to the basket to draw fouls and get easy scoring opportunities for themselves and others in the paint.
Statistically, UTM ultimately slowed to the pace to what WBB State's advanced box score described as "slow" - UNC had just 64 possessions, well beneath their ACC-leading 80 possessions per 40 minutes during the season. On offense, they maximized those possessions by making 6-of-13 threes in the first half while UNC's retreat to the arc against UT-M's zone resulted in 1-for-10 first half three point shooting.
UTM's senior guards managed the team's strategy almost perfectly, literally pulling the ball back to halfcourt instead of taking advantage of fast break opportunities and moving the ball until they got the best possible scoring opportunities preferably late in the shot clock. Skyhawks senior Jasmine Newsome did an excellent job of navigating the Tar Heels defensive pressure and getting the team's offense running. Fellow senior Heather Butler did an outstanding job as a scorer, recording 13 of her game-high 19 points in the first half (including all three of her made threes).
The challenge was maintaining that level of excellence while doing something they hadn't practiced often, as described by McMillan in his post-game remarks published at UTMSports.com.
...it was an extremely, extremely large challenge for us because that's not how we play. We press and we run and we shoot it quick and I think we're 3rd in the country in scoring. For these kids, especially these two seniors, to buy into changing that for this basketball game was actually unbelievable."
It wasn't until the second half when things really started to go downhill for UTM, setting aside the scoreboard problem, a controversial flagrant foul call, and some rather callous game management by the officials prior to a potentially game-winning possession.
UTM's three point shooting touch that was so vital to them establishing their 35-22 halftime lead left them in the second half as they only shot 1-for-9 from deep. After doing a pretty good job of preventing penetration in the first half, they gave up 17 free throws in the second half to help the Tar Heels get free points to chip away at what was an 18-point Skyhawks lead at one point. And North Carolina finally woke up and committed to using their size advantage on the boards in the second half with an 18-2 offensive rebounding advantage that resulted in 14 second chance points. Butler and Newsome combined to shoot 2-for-16 in the second half.
Nevertheless, if the goal was to prove they belonged - as UTM's Heather Butler described in her blog for Swish Appeal prior to the game - they certainly accomplished that. Despite all that went wrong in the second half, they still had the final shot of the game that could have won it or sent it to overtime on UNC's home floor.
Smart basketball almost prevailed over superior athleticism. Experienced veteran decision-making almost trumped the exuberance of youth. A willingness to take risks to maximize strengths as the underdog almost made a favored home team pay for what looked like taking a win for granted in the first half.
In a first round that featured a few surprise performances from teams that play outside the spotlight of the nation's major conferences, UTM's might have been most impressive even if their well-crafted plan fell short of a victory.
For more on the region, check out our Stanford region storystream.