CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina guard Marcus Paige couldn’t remember who started the conversation, whether he did or whether it was James Michael McAdoo, the Tar Heels’ junior forward.
On the way back last weekend from an uninspired loss at Syracuse, though, Paige and McAdoo shared a talk that both players remembered and described on Saturday in the moments after the Tar Heels’ 82-71 victory against Boston College.
Paige, a sophomore who led UNC with 21 points, described the conversation like this: “As the leaders and captains of the team, you can only hear it from the coaches so many times until you just have to say, like, guys – we did it our way the first three games and it didn’t work. So we’ve got to change something.
“We’ve got to change the effort, we’ve got to come more committed to getting better every day in practice.”
McAdoo, who finished with 17 points, put it another way.
“Coming back from Syracuse, we knew we had to do something and something had to change,” he said. “We are the leaders of this team, so we kind of took it upon ourselves – well, we did take it upon ourselves – to bring the guys together and just to talk.
“I’m not going to get into great detail but like I said earlier, changes had to be made on our side.”
The Tar Heels (11-6, 1-3) entered the Smith Center on Saturday having lost their first three ACC games for just the second time in school history, and for the first time under coach Roy Williams. No UNC team had been 0-4 in the ACC, and McAdoo and Paige, the Tar Heels captains, hardly wanted to become a part of dubious history.
They were the Tar Heels’ catalysts on Saturday. Paige scored 14 of his 21 points in the first half, and then made a key three-point play to extend UNC’s lead late in the second half. McAdoo, assertive early, tied his career high with four blocked shots and played with more outward emotion than usual.
It will take a while before it becomes clear whether the Tar Heels have indeed changed. Boston College (5-13, 1-4) arrived on Saturday with the worst overall record in the ACC and the Eagles, as they have been prone to do, crumbled in the final six minutes.
For the first time since ACC play began, though, Williams and his players weren’t left wondering what could have been had they given more. The Tar Heels led by 11 early, and by four at halftime. They allowed the Eagles to hang around before pulling away late.
“We’ve been working awfully hard on everything, guys,” Williams said afterward. “I mean, we’ve been working hard defensively. We’ve been working hard on trying to run it, doing everything. And we had a couple of really good practices – three really good practices this week. And I think it helped us today.”
Boston College didn’t offer much drama late, but the Eagles played well enough that the outcome was still in doubt with about seven minutes to play. Then Paige completed a three-point play to extend UNC’s lead to nine, and Leslie McDonald, a senior guard, made a 3-pointer to give the Tar Heels a 10-point with about 4 1/2 minutes left.
Change was the theme for the Tar Heels and Williams embraced it, too, by changing his starting lineup. McDonald started for the second time in 108 collegiate games. Jackson Simmons, a junior forward, made his first collegiate start in his 72nd game at UNC.
“You know, we’d lost three in a row,” Williams said. “You’ve got to try to do something. And I told them – I was very open about it. I don’t know that Leslie had done enough to deserve it, but I wanted to do something. Jackson plays harder than everybody else and that’s the reason that he got the chance.”
For the third consecutive game, UNC played a slow-it-down opponent. Boston College prefers games that end with scores in the 60s, yet the Tar Heels dictated tempo.
Williams looked down at the box score afterward and noticed that his team only had eight fast break points – “not a big game for us,” he said – but the Tar Heels forced 18 turnovers, too. UNC turned those into 24 points.
“It’s like conservative pressure,” Williams said of his team’s defensive philosophy on Saturday. “Because we wanted to get just a hand in the passing lane and not get too far out and open it up for backdoor cuts, because they do such a good job passing the basketball.”
At times, Williams said, he thought UNC was “really good” on Saturday. Yet there were other moments, too, when the Tar Heels weren’t. They labored through the final 12 minutes of the first half, and in the second half didn’t extend their lead until about six minutes remained.
For the first time since ACC play began, though, UNC put together a game in which its effort matched its execution. One or the other had been lacking during the past week and a half, and lack of effort had been most troublesome.
Now UNC will try to carry over what it did on Saturday to Monday, at Virginia, and beyond.
“We’ve got to commit to playing hard and making that a habit,” Paige said, “rather than a once every four or five games type of thing.”
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter