NEWTON, Mass. -- You’ve heard that defense wins championships. As it turns out, defense can also win games on snowy weeknights in February.
Boston College found that out firsthand Tuesday, when its faulty defense won the game for the visiting North Carolina Tar Heels.
The talented and opportunistic visitors shot 58.8 percent in the first half, 58.3 percent from 3-point range, and took a two-touchdown lead into the locker room at halftime. They didn’t look back.
In the second half, the 23rd-ranked Tar Heels (16-5, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) led by as many as 32 and won by that same margin 106-74.
Things had looked promising early. The Eagles (14-8, 4-4 ACC) hit their first two shots from behind the arc, had a jump in their step and looked primed to give Roy Williams’ bunch all it could handle.
Joe Trapani was everywhere for BC in the first 20 minutes. He caught a Dallas Elmore miss under the rim and laid it in for two. He kept alive the rebound off a deep Reggie Jackson 3, tipping it to Elmore for an open 3. The senior from Madison, Conn., his face flushed crimson with effort, shot 5-for-11, had 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds before the break. Trapani kept it up in the second, adding 11 points and eight rebounds, to finish with his third straight double-double at 25 and 15 (a career high).
But one good performance does not a win over a ranked opponent make.
For UNC, the spark came from the bench. Freshman guard Reggie Bullock popped off the pine hot, hitting his first four shots, all 3-pointers. That was a bad sign for BC, since the Tar Heels came into the game shooting just 33.0 percent on 3s (10th in ACC). But thanks to Bullock (32.4 percent on 3s coming in) and fellow frosh Harrison Barnes (32.5 percent coming in, 4-for-7 on 3s Tuesday with a career-high 26 points), the Heels shot 52.4 percent from downtown in the game.
“We tried to mix up the zones early today, they’ve had some trouble against zones,” BC coach Steve Donahue said. “They didn’t have trouble against our zone. They did a very good job of executing made shots. Once a team starts making shots, they get that confidence that they haven’t had up to this point.”
And while the Tar Heels were tickling the twine, the Eagles were finding the home rims unusually inhospitable.
“They played the kind of defense we thought they were gonna play: aggressive, overplaying the passing lanes,” Trapani said. “Offensively at times we did cut well, and were getting to the basket and we were making some layups, but we missed a lot of easy ones. We weren’t cutting hard and that’s from them scoring, taking the wind out of us, taking our confidence away.
“Bad defense compounds sluggish offense and it’s just a bad cycle,” he said.
The Tar Heels repeatedly found holes in the Eagles’ D, insinuating themselves into open spaces and making more than they missed. They shared the ball extremely well, collecting 27 assists on 39 made baskets. They used their length and athleticism to disrupt passing lanes (six steals) and grab offensive rebounds (10, 39 total).
And even when the Eagles made plays on defense, the Heels found a way to produce points. Jackson chased down Dexter Strickland on a fast break and swatted away his layup attempt, bringing the crowd to its feet. But the blocked ball found Barnes on the perimeter, and the reigning ACC Rookie of the Week calmly stroked a 3-pointer to put UNC up 64-40.
It seemed the Eagles could do no right Tuesday night, while the Tar Heels could do no wrong. Carolina’s 106 points were the most BC has allowed in eight years (since Notre Dame scored 101 on Jan. 25, 2003). The Eagles shot 35.3 percent from the field, a season low, and scored nine points off of turnovers. The Tar Heels shot 57.4 percent from the field and scored 33 points off of turnovers.
The Eagles came into the game averaging a league-low 10.6 turnovers; they had eight in each half Tuesday.
“I thought the offense contributed to some of our lapses,” Donahue said. “We did an extremely poor job, even on makes, getting back and I can’t tell you how much we worked on that over the last couple days.”
Apparently, there’s more work to do.
“Unfortunately we did not play well, in particular on the defensive end,” Donahue said. “And then things started to snowball both ways: They really played one of the best games they’ve had in a while, and then obviously we started pressing and missed a lot of easy shots that could’ve helped us stay in it during those stretches. To Carolina’s credit they really sensed it and put us away.”
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and contributes to ESPNBoston.com.