ATLANTA — North Carolina’s time in Atlanta began with a long wait on the tarmac at the airport, and unplanned ride on a train and a cold walk through ice and snow back to their hotel in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
“It was crazy,” Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels’ sophomore guard, said on Wednesday. “Honestly, none of the traveling went smooth.”
For a long while here on Wednesday night, the same could have been said of UNC’s game at Georgia Tech. Then, gradually – and perhaps improbably, given the circumstances – the Tar Heels pulled away for a 78-65 victory against the Yellow Jackets.
Similar to UNC’s journey to Atlanta, which was still reeling on Wednesday from snow and ice that left the city paralyzed for more than 24 hours, few things came easily for the Tar Heels (13-7, 3-4 ACC) on Wednesday night. They shot 30.8 percent during an ugly first half, and then played most of the second without James Michael McAdoo, the junior forward who picked up his third and fourth fouls in a span of 19 seconds minutes after halftime.
McAdoo went to the bench with his fourth with a little less than 16 minutes to play, and it seemed like a bad omen. The Tar Heels held a slim five-point lead at that point, and McAdoo, who after a slow start was beginning to play with the same kind of passion and results that ignited UNC’s victory against Clemson on Sunday, was leading the Tar Heels with 12 points.
UNC coach Roy Williams wasn’t so much worried by McAdoo’s fourth foul as he was irate.
“I wouldn’t say that I was concerned,” Williams said. “I would say that I was more mad, because you’ve got to make better decisions than that.”
The Tar Heels’ foul trouble didn’t end with McAdoo. When he picked up his fourth, he joined J.P. Tokoto, the sophomore forward who was already on the bench with four fouls.
An unlikely thing happened, though, after McAdoo retreated to the bench with 15 minutes and 49 seconds remaining. The Tar Heels played better. They were, in fact, at their best during the 11 minutes that McAdoo sat out, and they extended their lead from five points to 11 by the time McAdoo returned with about 4 ½ minutes to play.
Paige had a lot to do with it. He missed six of his seven field goal attempts in the first half and had two points at halftime, when UNC led 26-25 despite having attempted 16 more shots from the field.
In the second half, Paige didn’t miss. He made all six of his shots from the field, including three 3-pointers, and 17 of his 19 points came in the final 20 minutes.
“It was a slim lead and they had some momentum,” Paige said of when McAdoo picked up his fourth foul. “We just wanted to come together. Brice (Johnson) gave us a huge lift off the bench filling in for his spot, and then Kennedy (Meeks) did a great job as well.
“But coach (Hubert) Davis came to me and told me I had to be more aggressive … trying to make things happen.”
UNC’s victory gave the Tar Heels their first conference winning streak of the season. And now, after an 0-3 start in the ACC, UNC can even its league record with a victory on Saturday against N.C. State at the Smith Center.
Johnson, the sophomore forward who finished with eight points, and Meeks, the freshman forward who had nine points and 10 rebounds, were instrumental for UNC – like Paige – while the Tar Heels played through foul trouble throughout the second half. Williams, though, was most pleased by UNC’s increased effort after a sluggish first half.
“I think there was much greater sense of urgency on our guys, because James Michael and J.P. both are sitting over there (on the bench),” Williams said. “ … I think everybody understood and raised their level of play a little bit.”
Urgency and intensity carried the Tar Heels during their victory against Clemson on Sunday. Toughness might have been the characteristic that defined UNC on Wednesday night at Georgia Tech (11-10, 2-6).
The team had planned to arrive in the city by about 8:30 on Tuesday night. There was a film session on the schedule, and a reasonable bedtime. Instead, some players said on Wednesday that they didn’t fall asleep until 2:30 or 3 in the morning.
“It was definitely crazy,” said UNC senior guard Leslie McDonald, who finished with 15 points. “And getting into your bed, and you’re not in bed until like 2 o’clock, you’re like, ‘Wow, you just traveled a whole bunch of hours.’”
McDonald described the road trip as “one of the memorable” ones he’d experienced in his four years, and Paige, who had never been on a train before he and his teammates rode the MARTA from the airport to midtown Atlanta on Tuesday night, said it was the wildest of his brief collegiate career.
Less than 24 hours after they’d checked into their hotel, the Tar Heels packed up their locker room at the McCamish Pavilion and headed to their bus after a victory that, like everything else on this trip, wasn’t without some adversity.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter