Tar Heels squash Yellow Jackets, 79-63

acarter@newsobserver.comJanuary 24, 2013 

— North Carolina still isn’t close to becoming the team that Roy Williams hopes the Tar Heels can be, but there are signs they might be headed in that direction – the most recent of which came during the Heels' 79-63 victory on Wednesday night against Georgia Tech.

Like on Saturday during UNC’s 62-52 victory against Maryland, the Heels (13-5, 3-2 ACC) started strongly on Wednesday, built a commanding lead and led comfortably throughout the second half.

Unlike Saturday, though, UNC avoided a letdown after such a strong start, and the Heels appeared to grow stronger as the half wore on.

“Second half Saturday we were that Thriller video from Michael Jackson,” Williams said on Wednesday. “Looked like we were all dead walking around out there.”

His team was more lively on Wednesday - especially when P.J. Hairston, the sophomore guard, brought the Smith Center crowd to life with a viscous one-handed dunk with 6 minutes and 15 seconds to play. At the time, the Heels led by 15, and though they weren’t in any danger, they weren’t exactly putting the Yellow Jackets away, either.

That seemed to change the moment Hairston received a pass from Dexter Strickland, glided to the rim and finished the play over the outstretched, futile arms of Daniel Miller, Georgia Tech’s 7-foot center. Hairston, who finished with 15 points, compared the dunk to a similar one he had last season in a victory against Texas.

Hairston said he liked this one a bit better “because one, I didn’t see him coming and two, he elbowed me all in my face and I couldn’t really see the rim as much.”

The dunk gave UNC a 17-point lead – its largest of the game to that point – and the Yellow Jackets (10-7, 0-5) trailed by at least 15 points the rest of the way. Georgia Tech arrived in Chapel Hill as the ACC’s only winless team, and this was a relatively comfortable victory for the Tar Heels.

Still, Williams said, “We played in spurts.”

During the good ones, the Jackets were no match for UNC, which led by as many as 13 points during the first half. But when UNC struggled, and it did for prolonged stretches on Wednesday, it brought back fresh memories of the Heels’ woeful second-half performance against Maryland.

Overall, UNC was significantly sharper on Wednesday night. For the second consecutive game, the Heels received strong performances from both Reggie Bullock and James Michael McAdoo. McAdoo, who finished with 14 points and nine rebounds, scored the first points of the game, followed by Bullock, who led UNC with 17 points.

It wasn’t always pretty but, McAdoo said, “Three games in a row is three games in a row. I can’t remember the last time we had that going against good teams, [and] I would say any team in the ACC is good.”

The Yellow Jackets are that, at least defensively. They entered Wednesday night with the 10th-best field goal percentage defense in the country, but the Tar Heels’ strategy was clear from the start: use defense to create transition opportunities before the Yellow Jackets had a chance to set up their stout half court defense.

It worked early for the Heels, who never trailed and led 30-17 with about eight minutes to play during the first half.

“It’s more fun,” Williams said of running in transition, and creating easy scoring chances. “But I think it’s easier to score when the defense is not set and it generally starts with good play on the defensive end, either getting a turnover, getting a missed shot and running.

“But we haven’t gotten established yet, being able to run after a made [shot].”

Williams noted that his best UNC teams have been able to do that, and that this team is learning that, still. When they failed to create transition opportunities, the Heels sometimes bogged down against the Yellow Jackets, who hadn’t allowed a conference opponent to shoot better than 41.5 percent.

UNC shot 43.8 percent, and held the Yellow Jackets, who have struggled offensively throughout ACC play, to 36 percent shooting.

Afterward, Brian Gregory, the Georgia Tech coach, acknowledged what might be becoming clear to even the most casual of observers: “I think North Carolina’s starting to kind of come into its own,” he said.

After an 0-2 start in conference play, the victory was UNC’s third consecutive, and it means that the Tar Heels will enter their much-anticipated game at N.C. State on Saturday with both momentum and a winning league record.

Williams said he and his team felt “good” about the victory, but he didn’t seem overly happy.

“The best news is – I hope it’s in my lifetime – we can get a lot better,” Williams said.

OBSERVATIONS

-- P.J. Hairston continued his recent trend of inconsistent play – but this time it benefited the Tar Heels. After going 1-for-8 from the field and scoring three points during the Tar Heels’ 62-52 victory against Maryland on Saturday, Hairston finished with 15 points in 17 minutes against Georgia Tech. He made three of his six 3-point attempts, and his memorable dunk with 6:15 to play seemed to deflate the Yellow Jackets.

-- The Smith Center crowd was at its loudest after that dunk from Hairston. But the crowd cheered nearly as loudly when the videoboards showed Duke’s 90-63 defeat against Miami.

-- Former UNC standout Rashad McCants watched the game from the behind the Tar Heels’ bench.

-- The Yellow Jackets aren’t there yet, but they possess the pieces to be a competitive team in the coming seasons. Freshmen Marcus Georges-Hunt and Robert Carter both went 3-for-10 from the field, and fellow freshman Chris Bolden also struggled with his shot. Even so, those three players should represent a strong nucleus for coach Brian Gregory for the foreseeable future.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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