Roy Williams last week told his North Carolina players to forget about their loss against Duke. That was his message again earlier this week after a dominant victory against Miami – to forget about that game and move on quickly, mentally, to the one against N.C. State.
Then the Tar Heels found themselves trailing by 13 points Wednesday at the PNC Arena, where N.C. State’s early success had the crowd – always hostile for these games – loud and energized. By the time UNC’s 80-68 victory ended, though, the seventh-ranked Tar Heels’ troubling start but was a distant memory.
“The way we played down the stretch of the last 30 minutes of the game was fantastic,” UNC senior guard Marcus Paige said. “Kind of shut up the crowd and didn’t give them much to cheer about the rest of the game.”
In heeding Williams’ message after their previous two games, the Tar Heels (23-5, 12-3) sent a message of their own on Wednesday night: They might just be starting to realize their potential at the right time.
A week earlier all of that was in question. Williams sat in his postgame press conference with tears in his eyes after the loss against Duke, which rallied from an eight-point deficit with less than seven minutes to play. Some of his players sobbed on their way into the locker room.
But, Williams said Wednesday, “I think the big key to me is that we didn’t feel this ‘woe is me’ and feel sorry for ourselves after we didn’t execute the way we wanted to at the end of the Duke game.”
After that loss to Duke, the Tar Heels had to learn how to handle their most difficult failure of the season. Then after the victory against Miami they had to learn how to handle one of their greatest successes – a 96-71 win that was more one-sided than even the final score indicated.
After an auspicious start against N.C. State (14-14, 4-11), the Tar Heels controlled the final 30 minutes. Junior forward Brice Johnson found consistency again and finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds – his 17th double-double. Sophomore forward Justin Jackson, who played timidly through a stretch in January and early February, continued to emerge and finished with 17 points and six rebounds.
Defensively, UNC often excelled – especially after it withstood an early barrage from N.C. State junior guard Cat Barber, who scored 16 of his 32 points during the first eight minutes. After Barber’s early success, UNC more effectively limited him.
Entering the game against N.C. State, one of the primary questions surrounding the Tar Heels was whether they could follow up one strong performance with another – whether they could build on the momentum they seemed to create against Miami. They answered with a resounding yes, those first eight minutes notwithstanding.
“There might have been a two-game stretch early where we won by a lot or something,” said Paige, who finished with 10 points. “But I think especially recently, these have been the two best back-to-back games we’ve played.”
The significance of that wasn’t lost on him. On Saturday, the Tar Heels play at Virginia in perhaps their most important game of the regular season, one that will have a significant role in deciding whether UNC enters the ACC tournament with the No. 1 seed.
Beyond that, there’s senior night at the Smith Center against Syracuse, and the rematch with Duke and then the postseason. It’s all coming up quickly, and now the Tar Heels are approaching a critical stretch amid consecutive strong performances.
“It’s very important,” Paige said. “This is where you’ve kind of got to hit your stride. And I think we played – coach said we outscored them 70-45 down the stretch of the game after they came out on fire. So that’s good basketball for us.
“Justin (Jackson) had it going. Brice (Johnson) had it going. We stopped giving them second-chance opportunities and our defense really settled in – held them to under 40 percent from the field. So that’s a complete game from Carolina.”
It was the kind of complete game UNC had been struggling to put together until recently. It followed a thorough victory against Pitt, for instance, with the collapse against Duke. And before that, the Tar Heels had labored through a sloppy victory at Boston College, where UNC was still attempting to recover from a two-game losing streak earlier this month.
That was then. And this is now: two strong showings for a team that was reeling just a week ago.
“I definitely feel like we’re starting to put it together,” Johnson said. “There were points in the year where we felt like we were putting it together and then we had some breakdowns, but I do feel like we are starting to hit our stride and play like we need to play.”