UNC shakes off slow start in dominant 84-51 victory against UNC Wilmington

acarter@newsobserver.comDecember 31, 2013 

— No. 19 North Carolina hosted a New Year’s Eve party of sorts Tuesday night, one replete with a special-occasion wardrobe and festive hats for the student section.

By the end of the Tar Heels’ 84-51 victory against UNC Wilmington, it didn’t much matter that they’d been more than a bit fashionably late.

The Tar Heels persevered through sluggish performances in victories against Davidson 11 days ago, and against Northern Kentucky on Friday. So it was again during the first half at the Smith Center, where UNC played with an edge defensively but lacked precision on offense.

This was UNC’s final tune-up before it begins ACC play Sunday at Wake Forest, and early on that’s what it looked like: a tune-up in which the Tar Heels seemed to be trying to rediscover their rhythm. The past three weeks had brought a break for exams and another for Christmas.

Two strong practices in recent days, though, had coach Roy Williams feeling good about the work his team had done since the ugly victory against Northern Kentucky. The Tar Heels had two of the best practices of the season, some of his players said.

Williams said, however, “We didn’t play like it in the first half.”

At least not offensively. The Seahawks (6-9), coached by former UNC player Buzz Peterson – a member of the school’s 1982 national championship team, and one who shared a dorm room with Michael Jordan – made nine of 36 attempts from the field in the first half yet trailed by eight at halftime.

UNCW never came any closer. The 19th-ranked Tar Heels (10-3), who appeared energized offensively after shooting 40 percent from the field during the first half, needed less than seven minutes to extend their lead to 20. About eight minutes after that, they led by 30.

Along the way, they injected some life into a Smith Center crowd that showed up for a party that began far later than anticipated. During one sequence, forward James Michael McAdoo led a fastbreak and passed ahead to J.P. Tokoto, who finished with a one-handed dunk over a Seahawks defender.

Moments later, after one of the Seahawks’ 10 second-half turnovers, point guard Nate Britt lobbed a pass that McAdoo dunked. The alley-oop gave UNC a 61-37 lead and prompted Peterson, with the Smith Center at its loudest, to call a timeout with less than nine minutes to play

“You definitely do get energized,” McAdoo, who had 23 points and 10 rebounds, said of the dunks. “Just to hear the crowd and getting easy baskets like that – highlights, I guess you can call them – I definitely think it helps energize ourselves and the crowd. Being on the other end of that I think is very demoralizing.”

The Tar Heels, who for the second time in school history wore road blue uniforms at home – “Happy Blue Year,” they dubbed the game – trapped more effectively in the second half and the flustered Seahawks committed turnovers with regularity. They had 17 overall, and UNC turned those into 25 points.

A lot of those turnovers created fast-break opportunities for the Tar Heels, who outscored UNCW 18-4 in fast-break points. The second half, especially, served as a prolonged demonstration of the Tar Heels’ fast-break offense. They weren’t bad in the halfcourt, either, after struggling there during the first 20 minutes.

“We talked about that at great length at halftime,” Williams said. “About being more unselfish and getting a better shot and playing harder and doing a better job defensively. I think we did a much better job defensively in the second half. Our traps helped us as opposed to helping them.”

In addition to McAdoo’s 23 points, guard Marcus Paige scored 15 for UNC. Guard Leslie McDonald and forward Brice Johnson came off the bench and scored 14 each.

In UNC’s two victories that preceded this one – the ones against Northern Kentucky and Davidson – UNC started slowly and had difficulty breaking out of its malaise. That wasn’t the case Tuesday, at least.

“The attention and intensity was there today, I think, for the most part,” Paige said. “We just couldn’t get anything to go (in the first half). We were throwing the ball away, and we just couldn’t make some shots that we normally make.

“But our defensive points per possession was below what we even expected it to be. So that was good. We just kind of had a funk in the first half, and obviously we exploded in the second half and we were able to get some steals.”

On the final day of 2013, Williams said New Year’s Eve “has never been a big deal for me.” Yet after a difficult stretch of months – and, specifically, a saga that cost junior guard P.J. Hairston his eligibility – he acknowledged the obvious.

“The last six, seven months haven’t been very pleasant for me,” he said. “So if things change and they get pleasant, I’ll love 2014 a lot better than I did the end of 2013. But life throws you some adversity and you’ve got to handle it.”

His team did, on a smaller scale, in its final tune-up of the season. Now the start of conference play begins.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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