CHAPEL HILL, NC — The new-look North Carolina Tar Heels aren’t designed to roll for 40 minutes a game like many of the program’s previous great teams.
But this bunch can erupt with the best teams in the nation, and that firepower is why UNC is a dangerous club as the postseason nears.
On Sunday against Florida State, a contest UNC won 79-58, the Tar Heels trailed the Seminoles 16-15 with 8:50 left in the first half. North Carolina had played okay in stretches to that point, but missed opportunities had allowed FSU to stay in the game.
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But as soon as it seemed like the teams had settled in and a competitive game was unveiling, P.J. Hairston, Reggie Bullock, James Michael McAdoo and company went to work.
It began with a basket by McAdoo off a feed from Marcus Paige and included a McAdoo dunk, a Bullock 3-pointer, two more dunks by McAdoo, a 3 by Paige, and as the clock neared zero, Paige hit a darting McAdoo for a fast-break layup to give Carolina a 46-27 halftime lead.
The 31-11 run was perhaps the team’s most impressive of the season.
“First half, we were really good,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “You take away the two bonehead defensive plays we made at the end to give them two conventional, old-fashioned three-point plays — and there were a couple of our veterans involved both times — you take away those things, I thought we were good defensively and really good offensively.”
North Carolina (21-8, 11-5 ACC) used a series of spurts in the second half to maintain a comfortable margin, but it was that final 8:50 of the first half that should capture the attention of all future foes. Carolina was that good.
The Heels scored those 31 points on 14 possessions. They were 13 for 16 from the field in the stretch, 4-4 from beyond the arc, and they committed no turnovers and assisted on eight of the field goals.
“I was telling my players on the team, ‘Lets try to put them away as quickly as possible. Florida State is a great team and they can come back and make some shots; they have some big-time players,'” Bullock said. “So we just tried to put them away as quickly as possible.”
Bullock finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds. McAdoo totaled 21 points, but the third part of UNC’s impressive trio was Hairston, the sophomore wing who was inserted into the starting lineup six games ago.
Unlike a year ago and even at times early this season, his shot is no longer rushed and his release is fluid. The rotation on his shot is as pretty as it gets. He sank 4 of 6 3-point attempts Sunday and finished with 16 points to come out of a mini-slump.
As a team UNC converted 60 percent of its 15 3-point attempts Sunday, a product of additional work after practice. UNC’s staff implemented a new five-minute shooting drill, which is really a contest between the players, after just about every practice. It’s clearly paid off.
Known for its fast break, which has included a secondary break that former coach Dean Smith invented, UNC’s open-court approach has changed some. Shooters are finding more spots instead of trailing. Again, it’s paying off.
Bullock has shot well all season. Paige is good for one 3-ball a game. Junior Leslie McDonald can stroke but remains a bit inconsistent, and Hairston is so much better than a year ago. He shot just 27.3 percent from the perimeter last season, but is at 38.9 percent this season, and that includes an 8-38 stretch in December.
“It feels great,” Hairston replied when asked about the difference in last season and now. “It’s going in.”
And the Tar Heels are winning. They have reeled off five consecutive victories and are getting more comfortable with the new, smallish approach as each game passes.
That coupled with their explosiveness has the Tar Heels peaking at the right time.