CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina played its finest half of the season during its 62-52 victory against Maryland here on Saturday, yet Tar Heels coach Roy Williams admitted afterward that it was difficult for him not to bemoan the way his team played during the final 20 minutes.
Im giving myself a pep talk, he said, referencing his desire to focus on the good and overlook the bad. I want to focus on the dadgum first half.
And what a half it was for UNC, which dominated in a way that it hadnt yet this season. Reggie Bullock, the junior guard, scored 21 of his 24 points during the first 20 minutes outscoring Maryland by himself in the process and the Tar Heels led 42-20 at halftime.
UNC (12-5, 2-2) built that lead with intense, relentless defense and a fluid offense that found its rhythm early. The Tar Heels forced 15 turnovers during the first half the final one coming in the final seconds, when Dexter Strickland made a steal and then raced down the court for a one-handed dunk just before intermission.
That play sent the Heels off of the Smith Center court and into the locker room amid a loud ovation. They felt good.
It was pretty in the first half, guys, Williams said to a roomful of reporters. It looked like North Carolina basketball.
But so, too, did the second half only it wasnt the kind of basketball Williams prefers. The Heels followed their sharpest half of the season with the kind of effort and execution that doomed them in sloppy, uninspired defeats against Texas, Virginia and Miami.
After shooting 48.4 percent during the first half, UNC made 23.5 percent of its shots in the second. Bullock scored 21 by himself during the first 20 minutes. In the second, he and his teammates scored 20 points, total.
Williams cited too many one-on-one drives during the second half. At best, those plays were ineffective. At worst, they led to turnovers. Defensively, meanwhile, Williams said his team during the second half didnt do a good job of stopping them and their penetration to the basket.
Maryland (14-4, 2-3) had a difficult time capitalizing on those mistakes. After UNC went ahead 17-5 about six minutes into the game, the Tar Heels maintained a double-digit lead throughout.
Still, the relative ease with which UNC won was of little consolation to Williams and his players.
We got a little complacent, said Marcus Paige, the freshman point guard who finished with six assists and no turnovers. We had a pretty big lead going into halftime. We were really excited that we played such a great half. But youve got to put it together 40 minutes.
Williams described it in simpler terms.
I think that in the first half it was really, really pretty, he said. And then in the second half it was really, really ugly.
Bullock, whose 24 points represented a career high, experienced both sides. He scored the first eight points of the game, an impressive burst that prompted Maryland coach Mark Turgeon to call a timeout after less than 90 seconds.
Bullock made six of his nine shots from the field during the first half, but was just 1-for-6 during the second.
I was just catching the ball and shooting, Bullock said of his successful start. I was feeling it, and trying to get the crowd in it just playing with a lot of emotion, playing with that sense of urgency.
That had been the Tar Heels focus since their 77-72 victory at Florida State a week ago. The Heels didnt always play well in that game, but they played with urgency, and with the kind of intensity that Williams has been trying to coax out of his players for much of the season.
For one half, at least, that urgency was there again on Saturday and the fruits of it continued to carry the Tar Heels even amid their poor performance during the second half. During one moment in the second half, Williams crouched on his knees and slapped the floor in an apparent attempt to inspire his team to play with more passion.
Still, the Tar Heels never seemed to recapture their early spark. By the end of the game, the success of the first half almost seemed a distant memory given UNCs focus afterward on what went wrong.
Its always the mistakes, UNC forward James Michael McAdoo, who finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds, said of where hed direct his focus. I dont know if that came from just being complacent with the lead that we had, but thats something that great teams do not do.
In some ways, though, the Heels are still learning how to be a good team, let alone a great one. After two losses to start ACC play, UNC evened its conference record during an uneven performance in which the Heels followed their best half of the season with one of their worst.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter