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How one unexpected defensive decision spurred No. 17 North Carolina to rally past FSU

The first 30 minutes of North Carolina’s win over Florida State could be described as terrible, slow or lethargic. The last 10? Electric, exciting and wild.

UNC defeated Florida State, 78-70, with an intense comeback fueled by a 22-0 run.

That run, however, came from an unlikely source: press defense. The Tar Heels (7-1, 1-0 ACC) haven’t historically been known to run a press, it especially doesn’t run it after makes and misses. It’s just not part of the system. On Saturday, it worked.

Photos: North Carolina defeats Florida State in conference opener

Carolina head coach Hubert Davis said the team felt like it was “a step slow on both ends of the floor.” The team wasn’t diving for loose balls or fighting for rebounds. It struggled to finish at the rim and make open shots.

When it went to the press, the Tar Heels picked up much-needed steals and forced deflections. They finished with seven steals and six blocks. The team generally increased the pace, as well, forcing the Seminoles (4-3, 0-1 ACC) out of their system. They committed three turnovers in roughly 90 seconds, which the Heels turned into points on the other end.

“That’s exactly what I wanted to see – some life,” Davis said. “For whatever reason that press got us going.”

The press led to transition buckets and attacks at the rim, giving the team plenty of free throws. The Heels made 20-of-25 in the second half alone.

FSU coach Leonard Hamilton credited Carolina’s press for its ability to come back from a 14-point deficit. He said it created indecision for the group, which is still building chemistry.

“We’ve never had issues with presses in the past,” Hamilton said. “We normally extend the lead when people start pressing us, but right now we’re vulnerable. We’ve gotta get to the point where we’re comfortable, but we have a lot of moving parts and are not quite as in sync.”

Last year, the Tar Heels may not have been able to successfully pull off the comeback. Part of that may have been the ability to run a press. It didn’t have the same depth or maturity, nor did it have the same level of discipline in its details – something it relied on Saturday.

North Carolina’s Seth Trimble (7) scores on a fast break to tie Florida State 56-56, overcoming a fourteen point deficit in the second half on Saturday, December 2, 2023 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina’s Seth Trimble (7) scores on a fast break to tie Florida State 56-56, overcoming a fourteen point deficit in the second half on Saturday, December 2, 2023 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Seth Trimble was an underrated contributor for UNC in the win. The sophomore averaged 1.8 points per game last season. He scored nine against the Seminoles, going 3-for-3 from the floor and 3-for-4 from the line. Trimble also created disruption on the defensive end.

Junior transfer Harrison Ingram said having Trimble is an advantage in tough situations. Ingram called his teammate athletic and fast, with an ability to wreak havoc on opponents.

Senior RJ Davis finished with 27 points; the first player to have 27 points or more in three straight games since Joseph Forte did it in 2001. Graduate student Armando Bacot added 13 points and four blocks.

“It’s something that we practice and we prepare for it,” Davis said. “In games like this, it’s not surprising (to run the press) at all. We work on it a lot, and we’re gonna need it in situations like this. Today it was really effective.”