It was about a year ago at this time, during the ACC tournament, when North Carolina began to transform into the team it became during its March run to the national championship game. The Tar Heels then played with more precision, more urgency, more aggressiveness.
They played then a lot like they did here on Thursday during their 78-53 victory against Miami in the ACC tournament quarterfinals at the Barclays Center. With the victory, the Tar Heels advanced to the tournament semifinals, where they’ll play against either Louisville or Duke.
What transpired was the short-term benefit for UNC. The long-term benefits, though, could be more wide-ranging. A year ago, UNC used victories like this one as a catalyst all March.
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The Tar Heels’ performance on Thursday offered a significant contrast to their 77-62 loss at Miami on Jan. 28. In that defeat, UNC shot 35 percent and finished with its second-fewest points of the season. UNC on Thursday equaled that scoring total with about nine minutes to play.
The Tar Heels (27-6), the top seed in the ACC tournament, scored their 62nd point in incredulous fashion, on a 3-pointer from Theo Pinson. At least, that’s how it will show up in the official play-by-play. In reality, Pinson was attempting to throw a lob pass into the interior.
Instead the pass fell through the rim. Pinson stood for a moment and stared with a blank expression. He didn’t seem to believe that his pass went in. At the time, it gave UNC a 62-46 lead – its largest of the game.
About four minutes later, with the Tar Heels in the midst of a 14-1 run over the span of about 5 ½ minutes, the Tar Heels led 71-47. By then UNC, which has played in the past two ACC tournament championship games, was well on its way to the semifinals.
The positives for UNC, aside from the final outcome, included Isaiah Hicks’ overall performance, the execution on offense, and its defensive urgency. Hicks led UNC with 19 points, one of four Tar Heels players in double figures.
Overall, UNC shot 53.1 percent – nearly 20 percentage points better than in the defeat at Miami during the regular season. And, defensively, the Tar Heels attacked passing lanes and hounded the Hurricanes (20-11) both on the perimeter and the interior.
In the final minutes, UNC coach Roy Williams called on some of his reserves who play only sparingly. One who entered the game was Stilman White, the senior guard. He made a 3-pointer not longer after he stepped on the court, and the Tar Heels’ onslaught continued.