CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina guard Marcus Paige was on the way back to his dorm Wednesday night to take his pregame nap when he was called back for a team meeting, in which the Tar Heels learned their game against Duke had been postponed.
The Duke game represented a chance for the Tar Heels to measure themselves, but they had a similar opportunity against Pittsburgh here Saturday. And by the end of their 75-71 victory against the Panthers, the Tar Heels had learned they’ve come a ways since that troubling start of ACC play.
“This kind of shows that we really have improved,” said Paige, who scored 11 of his 18 points in the second half. “We’re not the same team that had the highs and lows earlier in the year, (in) November and December.”
Or even the same team, for that matter, that started 0-3 and 1-4 in the ACC. North Carolina has won six consecutive games, and the Tar Heels’ victory Saturday followed a familiar formula: They were good defensively, they successfully forced their preferred tempo and Paige and James Michael McAdoo were catalysts.
Paige helped the Tar Heels (17-7, 7-4) build a comfortable lead early in the second half, when he made three 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes. McAdoo, meanwhile, led UNC early and late, and he was especially assertive while the 25th-ranked Panthers (20-6, 8-5) kept trimming the Tar Heels’ late in the second half.
McAdoo put North Carolina ahead by four points, and then by five, with less than five minutes to play, after Pitt twice made it a one-possession game. Afterward, UNC coach Roy Williams looked down at the box score, and at McAdoo’s 24 points, and found another number he liked.
“To me,” Williams said. “The best thing is not only 24 points but 12 rebounds – seven of them on the offensive end – and only one turnover.”
As good as McAdoo was, he was on the bench, fouled out, during the game’s tensest moments. The Tar Heels led by seven with 55 seconds to play, and by six with 34. The Panthers kept coming back, though, and trailed by three points with 23 seconds left, after the Tar Heels knocked a missed Pitt free throw out of bounds.
From there, the Panthers missed three shots – including a Lamar Patterson 3-point attempt that would have tied the score with seven seconds left. Patterson, a first-team All-ACC candidate, had an open look and his shot appeared on line.
“I was a little late on the contest, because we were in our zone defense out of bounds,” Paige said. “But I don’t know. After he got it off, he’s a good shooter so I was just hoping we’d get a Dean Dome type of bounce for us.”
The Tar Heels did, and moments later Pitt fouled North Carolina sophomore forward Brice Johnson, a 66 percent free throw shooter. He missed the first attempt and then heard his father shouting advice from the stands.
“I can pick out his voice out of everybody,” said a smiling Johnson, who finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocked shots. “… All I heard was, ‘Use your legs.’ ”
Johnson made the second shot, clinching UNC’s first victory against a ranked team since it beat then-No. 11 Kentucky on Dec. 14. Since then the Tar Heels, so unpredictable earlier this season, have recovered from their poor conference start.
They’d been looking forward to playing Duke on Wednesday, and to testing themselves amid their longest winning streak. The Tar Heels had anticipated, too, playing in a more free-flowing game against the Blue Devils.
“It was more tough to calm down from being excited for the Duke game then it was just to switch the Xs and Os philosophy type stuff,” Paige said. “I would just say it was hard emotionally, to channel your energy for Pitt rather than thinking about the big rivalry game.”
North Carolina went from preparing for Duke, with its bevy of perimeter shooters, to preparing for Pitt, which is one of the slowest of the slow-it-down teams in the country. Entering Saturday – the first of four games in eight days for UNC, which hosts Duke next Thursday – just 13 teams averaged fewer than the Panthers’ 63.6 possessions per game.
The Tar Heels spent no shortage of time emphasizing the need to force their preferred tempo, to make Pitt play faster than it wanted. UNC succeeded, and the teams’ 70 possessions represented one of Pitt’s fastest-paced games of the season.
“When we were playing defense they were definitely going to use most of, if not all, the shot clock,” McAdoo said. “So that was definitely something that was emphasized and coach really also emphasized just running, and getting out in transition. I feel like we were able to do that today.”
The Tar Heels finished with 14 fast break points – not a spectacular number, but one that pleased Williams and his team given the Panthers’ desire to go slow. At times in the second half, like when the Tar Heels led by 12 – their largest lead – with about nine minutes to play, it seemed like North Carolina might run away with an easy victory.
It turned out to be the opposite. Pitt came back and provided a test – UNC’s most difficult during its six-game winning streak, yet one the Tar Heels passed in the first game of their busiest stretch of the season.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter