North Carolina’s 89-62 victory against Boston College on Saturday came in the kind of game that might in late March become a small footnote in a long season, a forgotten victory in a growing line of them.
And yet it provided important lessons and moments for the Tar Heels, whose most difficult stretch of ACC play is about to begin. For one, Marcus Paige, the senior guard, showed signs on Saturday of breaking out of a long, difficult slump.
And as a team UNC finally shot well from the field after failing to make even 40 percent of its shots during its past three games. Joel Berry, the sophomore point guard, played another turnover-free game and coach Roy Williams found satisfaction, too, in his team’s defensive intensity and effort.
It lacked in moments. But not often, and not much after halftime, when Williams challenged his team.
“Coach got on us about playing defense,” Berry, who finished with 13 points and six assists, said afterward. “... And (we) were able to create some turnovers, and that’s what we have to do. We’re a running team, and we don’t want the tempo to be slow.
“We want to get up and down and get as many shots as we can.”
The Tar Heels forced the overmatched Eagles, the only ACC team that has yet to win a conference game, into 23 turnovers. Twelve of those came on UNC steals, which led to some easy points on a variety of dunks and layups.
The Tar Heels (19-2, 8-0 ACC) finished with 16 fast-break points. The most critical statistical discrepancy between the teams, though, came in points off of turnovers, where UNC finished with a 30-5 advantage.
Williams said afterward that “that was the biggest thing” – the points off turnovers. And yet it was hardly the only thing, either, his team did well.
UNC made it look easy, especially, during the second half. It never led by fewer than 13 points after halftime and never allowed Boston College (7-14, 0-8), which was without two of its best players, a chance.
That wasn’t unexpected. The Eagles, according to the advanced statistical website kenpom.com, are the worst team on UNC’s schedule, though they managed to hang around for a while during the first half until the Tar Heels turned the game into a rout with a 15-0 run a few minutes before halftime.
“They were shorthanded in this game, and so we just tried to get the tempo going, doing our traps and stuff,” Berry said. “So we just tried to pick up the tempo and get them tired a little bit. I think that’s what made them have all those turnovers – they didn’t have a lot of players to come off the bench.”
UNC did, meanwhile. Williams, whose team faces a quick turnaround with a Monday night game at Louisville, went deep into his bench on Saturday.
Nine players received at least 13 minutes of playing time and another, freshman wing forward Kenny Williams, played seven minutes.
The Tar Heels spread around the playing time and the points, too, with seven players scoring at least eight points and nobody scoring more than Brice Johnson’s 17. Paige, the senior guard who’d gone three games without making a 3-pointer – the longest stretch of his time at UNC – was one of them.
He made the first of his three 3s about three minutes into the game on Saturday. When it fell through, finally, he looked up toward the rafters of the Smith Center and released a deep breath, one that signaled in part the release of some frustration.
Meanwhile, the crowd here provided Paige a loud ovation.
“They’ve seen the past couple of games I’ve struggled, so they’re trying to lift me up – cheer when I make a shot and stuff,” said Paige, who finished with 12 points. “They’re just trying to push me through, and I thank them for that.”
Paige’s teammates reacted with a sense of relief, too. It wasn’t the complete breakout he might have been hoping for – Paige finished 4-for-9 from the field, and made three of his eight 3-point attempts – but there were enough encouraging signs, at least.
“Eventually it was going to happen,” said Isaiah Hicks, who finished with eight points in his first start of the season in place of Kennedy Meeks, who was late to a shoot-around. “But I guess it was a relief for us, to finally see him doing what he (does).”
The Tar Heels did, too, what they have often done against over-matched competition this season: They finished with dominant, one-sided victory. Now begins a more challenging stretch for UNC, which plays at Louisville on Monday and then at Notre Dame next Saturday.
The Tar Heels entered their game on Saturday against Boston College hoping to play better than they had during the past two weeks – hoping to set a foundation for the challenges to come. Before the game on Saturday, Williams wrote a simple message on the white board: “let’s play to get better.”
UNC was better on Saturday, and now the schedule becomes more difficult.