It was long after North Carolina coach Roy Williams had ripped off his coat and screamed at his players during a timeout, long after No. 14 Louisville had built, and then lost, a 10-point first-half lead, and long after the Tar Heels had gathered at halftime and talked about change.
About 12 minutes remained in the ACC tournament game at the Greensboro Coliseum. The score was tied, the tension was rising and it was reminiscent of so many other situations that overwhelmed the Tar Heels, when they shrank in the moment.
They tried to explain after their 70-60 victory what changed – how they had changed. How, after talking so often about change, and different outcomes, they finally produced one and avoided the kind of second-half collapse that had defined their season.
“We were just all in the huddle – we just said this is the most important part of the game,” said Kennedy Meeks, a sophomore forward from Charlotte whose status for Thursday was in doubt amid an illness. “We’ve been known not to close out games, so that was important to us – to show it today.”
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Before Thursday, No. 19 UNC (23-10) had made a habit of falling apart in tense moments of tight games. The Tar Heels surrendered an 18-point second-half lead at Louisville (24-8) at Jan. 31 and lost in overtime, and UNC failed to hold second-half leads in a loss against Virginia and in two losses against Duke.
During those games – and during a mostly miserable second-half performance in a home defeat against N.C. State – Meeks and Brice Johnson, the Tar Heels’ other primary scorer in the post, disappeared.
They didn’t Thursday, though, and UNC advanced to play Virginia, the top seed, in the tournament semifinals.
Johnson, who led UNC with 22 points and seven rebounds, and Meeks, who finished with nine points, combined to make UNC’s final seven shots. Their success was improbable, given the question of Meeks’ health, and Johnson’s struggles in the first half.
During a timeout with about 71/2 minutes left in the first half, UNC’s players huddled around Williams, who angrily stepped toward Johnson.
Johnson looked up toward the rafters during Williams’ rant. He said later that Williams and assistant coach Hubert Davis called him soft.
“When your manhood is questioned it kind of hurts your feelings,” Johnson said. “Coach Davis and coach Williams were saying I was soft. That’s the way I played in the first half.”
That’s the way UNC had so often played in the second half of five frustrating defeats.
In addition to the collapse at Louisville, the Tar Heels held a 10-point lead in the final minutes at Duke before losing. At home they led Duke by seven before fading. They had momentum against N.C. State until they didn’t.
What changed, point guard Marcus Paige said, “was our effort level.” The level of execution increased, too.
UNC hoped to attack the middle of Louisville’s zone – just below the free throw line – throughout. That plan failed in the first half, when UNC shot 37.1 percent because Johnson, Meeks and others often weren’t in the correct position.
“In the second half they were stepping out and screening and finding that middle area at the free throw line,” said Paige, who finished with 13 points and five assists. “And that’s where we attacked from in the entire second half.”
Improved movement led to better shots. UNC shot 50 percent in the second half – its fifth consecutive game in which it has shot at least 50 percent during the final 20 minutes.
Unlike during the loss against Duke to end the regular season Meeks and Johnson were involved late.
They had a combined 14 points – seven apiece – during the 77 minutes of game time when UNC most faltered in the second half of defeats at Louisville and against Virginia, N.C. State and Duke (twice). Thursday they combined for 24 points in the second half, and Johnson scored 18 of those.
“I’d like to introduce you to our two players,” Williams said afterward, referring to the two guys who sat next to him during a news conference. “Marcus Paige is the first one. Brice Johnson is the guy that showed up in the second half.”
Williams was asked how difficult it was to “get into Brice’s face” during that timeout, given that he stands about one foot shorter than Johnson.
“He was playing about 5-8 at that point,” Williams said. “So I was looking down on him at that point.”
While Williams screamed at him during that timeout, Johnson said he felt the eyes of the arena on him. He said he felt embarrassed. The moment motivated him and he said he “manned up” in the second half.
Collectively the Tar Heels, who used a zone defense during the second half, played with more fortitude after halftime. They had talked about playing that way, about learning from so many second-half meltdowns – turnovers, missed shots, empty possessions – but the time finally came to stop talking and start doing.
For once, UNC didn’t fade in the moment. The Tar Heels were at their weakest during that second-half collapse at Louisville. Thursday, against the same team and amid similar circumstances, they persevered and ended a long, frustrating trend.
Three keys vs. Virginia:
1. Did UNC really grow up in the victory?
The Tar Heels believe they took a big step forward during a 70-60 victory against Louisville on Thursday. It looked they did, what with the strong finish and the late production in the post from Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, who made UNC’s final seven shots from the field. How the Tar Heels play against Virginia, though, could be a true indicator of whether UNC turned a corner. Granted, UNC could play extremely well and still lose to Virginia, the ACC’s best team. Still, even a loss wouldn’t be the worst thing for UNC – if it comes amid a complete game with the proper level of effort and execution.
2. Pace of play.
Virginia beat UNC 75-64 in Chapel Hill on Feb. 2 in a game with 64 possessions. The Cavaliers, the ACC’s slowest team, hasn’t played a game since with so many possessions, while that remains one of UNC’s slowest games of the season. The Tar Heels are 1-5 in games with fewer than 67 possessions, and they’ll try to force their desired quick tempo in any way possible. How successful they are could go a long way toward determining their chances.
3. Can UNC avoid turnovers?
The importance of turnovers is magnified against Virginia because of its pace. UNC had 13 turnovers in the first game between these teams, and that’s not an inordinate amount in a game that’s played at the Tar Heels’ preferred tempo. But 13 turnovers is a lot in the kind of low-possession game Virginia likes to play. Many of those came at inopportune moments in the second half, when the Cavaliers extended their lead. UNC can’t afford empty possessions Friday, but avoiding turnovers will be a challenge against Virginia, which is one of the best defensive teams in the nation. Andrew Carter