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UNC 70, GT 58: Heels Left their Shooting in Chapel Hill, Win Ugly Instead

On a night when the offense wasn't clicking, Carolina proved it could still find ways to beat an inferior team.

"Hey guys, check out my Seth Curry imitation"
"Hey guys, check out my Seth Curry imitation"

As several people mentioned in the run up to this game, despite Carolina's recent "run" of sorts (and yes, I put it in parentheses because when you lose to your arch-rival and then beat two inferior teams in a row, it doesn't quite yet qualify as a run) a lot of fans were nervous about this one because terrible, no-good, awful things tend to happen when the Heels travel to Atlanta. This was also going to be an interesting test for UNC's new small-ball lineup because Tech had plenty of size to throw at the Heels and wasn't as comfortable of a matchup for Carolina's new look as Duke and UVa had been. Fortunately, despite some of those fears being justified, UNC actually seemed to make good second-half adjustments (without getting down by 20 this time!) and won despite their perimeter guys shooting like absolute crap.

Let's take a look at our 3 big takeaways from the game:

  1. I'm looking at the team in the mirror: Not sure if fans of other college teams experience this, but I feel like Carolina has a bad habit of emulating the team it's going up against rather than just exploiting its weaknesses to blow the game open. Georgia Tech came in as the #10 defense in the country, so it was almost like Carolina came in with a mindset that they wouldn't be able to score as easily and would have to amp up the energy on defense themselves. Listen, don't get me wrong - I always welcome a UNC team that's motivated on D, but I think Tech holding the Heels to 38% shooting wasn't really about GT playing great defense - Carolina just couldn't hit shots. Wide open ones, contested ones, dunks... we missed them all at one point or another. While UNC's own defense was admirable in this game (we'll get to that in a second), would have been nice to see them execute on both ends of the floor. Then I'll believe this team has a shot at making it into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
  2. Turns out, it's not all about PJ: P.J. Hairston had his first poor performance as a starter, shooting 1-7 from 3 and finishing 4-15 overall. The guy still finds plenty of ways to contribute though, with a mini-stat-stuffing line of 10 points, 5 boards, 2 assists, 3 steals and 0 turnovers. I have no reservations about his continued appearance in the starting lineup - however, it was good for Carolina to figure out ways to run their offense effectively when his shot wasn't falling, and the guy who picked up the load in this case was James Michael McAdoo, who broke out of his 3-game scoring slump. As I've said before, the operative word for JMM is efficiency - yes he's a talent, but he's usually a talent who's chucking up off-balance 15-foot turnarounds to the tune of something like 6-of-18 shooting. This time, he finished with 22 and 11 on a not-bad 9-19 line, and using his quickness the way he should be utilizing it all the time: killing people in the pick-and-roll and disrupting passing lanes on defense. Leslie McDonald was also big off the bench, finishing with 15 points on 4-6 from 3 and providing a much-needed spark. I'm liking Carolina's shortened rotation more these days, with a variety of guys they can go to in order to see who has the hot hand - I could equally imagine McDonald, Brice Johnson or J.P. Tokoto going for 10-15 on any particular night depending on who's feeling it. And if our starting backcourt continues to have a bricklaying contest (2-14 for Paige and Strickland combined), we'll need that.
  3. Hey, that's new and different! Carolina won this game by doing things that have been sorely missing this year: winning the turnover battle and hitting their free throws. The Heels earned 14 steals, all from their starting unit, as GT gave it away 19 times, and despite shots not falling for UNC they did pretty well taking care of the ball, finishing with just 7 turnovers. They also managed to finish 14-17 from the line while GT shot 4-11 from the charity stripe, which kept Carolina's lead at a relatively comfortable margin for most of the game. Forced turnovers and made FTs were both crucial in the 12-0 second half run that put the game away for UNC. More of this, please.
It was pretty unconventional, a lot ugly, but a little reassuring to see Carolina still win on the road when shots aren't falling. I feel like at this point the fan base is saying every game coming up for the Heels is a big one, but the next home game against State really does carry a lot of weight. UNC has figured out a few things, plays well at home, and needs another top-50 RPI win (or so every media outlet in the country keeps telling me). We'll probably find out whether thinking Carolina is putting it all together has some merit, or is just a mirage.