Tar Heels putting it together in Chapel Hill
CHAPEL HILL, NC — The light is on in Chapel Hill. Sometimes it flickers, but it's on.
Something clicked between North Carolina's lousy final five minutes in a home loss to Miami on Jan. 10 and when it won at Florida State 38 hours later.
Move forward a week and the Tar Heels picked up where they left off against the Seminoles, dispatching Maryland 62-52. It may be fair to say the light finally went on with them.
And the lesson learned. The message: Intensity matters.
"We know what we have to do; it's just up to us to go out and do it," UNC sophomore wing P.J. Hairston said.
This doesn't mean the Tar Heels (12-5, 2-2) are always going to play with complete focus, effort and execution. They remain a work in progress. But there's now plenty of evidence to support the transcript that dictates success, and vice versa.
UNC failed tremendously in this respect in earlier losses to Butler in Hawaii, at Indiana, at Texas, at Virginia and late in a home defeat to Miami. But the Heels got the message and executed it in wins over UNLV, FSU and Maryland.
In fact, Carolina's execution and defensive intensity were so strong early, it clearly got into the Terrapins' heads.
"Oh yeah, they were thinking way too hard," Hairston said. "They came out and turned the ball over three or four times in a row and Reggie got a couple of 3s, him getting a layup ... That was a good start for the team."
The Heels maintained it throughout the first half. Carolina led 42-20 at halftime, ending the opening 20 minutes on a steal and flush by senior guard Dexter Strickland that forced even the most mild-mannered Tar Heels fans to stand and roar in appreciation.
UNC scored 14 points after forcing 15 first-half turnovers, nine of which were recorded as steals. It held the Terrapins (14-4, 1-3) to 33.3 percent shooting, including no conversions from the perimeter and only two assists.
It was the single best half the Tar Heels have played this season, and it came against a team that has the composition that should give Carolina problems and was coming off an emotional win over No. 14 North Carolina State.
"The crowd was in it, Reggie (Bullock) was hot, our defense was there, and guys were playing with a sense of urgency, hawking on the ball on defense and playing good team ball on offense," said forward James Michael McAdoo, who finished with 19 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and two steals.
While the intangibles were executed at a high level, Bullock pulled off a rarity on offense.
He finished the contest with 24 points, but had 21 in the first half, outscoring the Terps as a team by a point. If UNC does the dirty work and its stars are scoring, the Heels go from a solid, low-seeded NCAA club to a much more respected one that can hang around for a while.
Carolina coach Roy Williams has seen some of what he wants, but won't admit the light is fully on, hence the flickering. Being outscored 32-20 in the second half will do that to a coach.
"[At] Florida State we had more of a sense of urgency, took care of the basketball and never got selfish," he said. "The first half was really, really pretty, and the second half it was really, really ugly. Young guys do that."
UNC forced 21 turnovers on the day, with 11 steals and five blocked shots. The Tar Heels played like this game mattered more than any they had ever played. And without the usual array of great players in uniform and no true post player, that's the only way UNC will navigate through this season and come out on the other end playing in the NCAA Tournament.
The Heels looked every bit an NCAA team Saturday. With freshman point guard Marcus Paige's continued development — he looked like an actual point guard Saturday — James Michael McAdoo embracing the physical nature of the game, and Bullock and Hairston trading terrific performances, it's quite clear the light has finally gone on.
"I guess we're really buying in," McAdoo said. "We were 0-2 and we needed a win, and we needed a win today ... I think the thing is focusing on the things we were doing wrong and how they were preventing us from winning and stepping up and not making those same mistakes."
Sounds simple, but it requires hard work. And UNC appears to finally get it.