North Carolina won a slugfest in defeating Georgia Tech, 80-66, at the Smith Center on Saturday.
It looked like it might be a real fight when Yellow Jackets guard Jose Alvarado stepped over Tar Heels senior Joel Berry II after a hard foul late in the game.
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No, UNC (16-4, 5-2 ACC) didn’t get into fisticuffs with Georgia Tech (10-9, 3-3), but it did have to scratch and claw in the first half in order to pick up its fourth straight win. The Tar Heels finished the game with 14 turnovers, 10 of which came in the first half. The low point came after North Carolina took a five-point lead (17-12) after a dunk from freshman Sterling Manley. The next 11 possessions, however, were rather forgettable.
After Manley’s slam, Luke Maye missed two consecutive shots, and that was followed by a turnover and another missed 3-point shot from Kenny Williams. Five more turnovers would follow and the Tar Heels went almost six minutes without a basket. Luckily when Cam Johnson (16 points) knocked down a 3 at the 7:48 mark it was only a two-point deficit. The Yellow Jackets didn’t do enough to take the game over during North Carolina’s scoring drought. When the Tar Heels couldn’t score, or take care of the basketball, they managed to stay in the game by doing a bunch of other things well, mainly, turn things up a notch on defense.
“Three turnovers in (the second half), I can stand that,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “We didn’t shoot the ball well, but their (Georgia Tech’s) defense is good. Rebounding was big for us, no question.”
The Tar Heels scored 26 points from offensive rebounds and held a 46-25 advantage on the boards. The 22 more second-chance points than Tech was the second largest scoring margin in that category this season. The previous was a 25-2 margin over Davidson. UNC had four offensive boards on its first 10 possessions of the game, despite sticking with a smaller lineup with the 6-8 Maye and Theo Pinson (6-6) in the frontcourt.
Maye finished with a game-high 11 rebounds, while Pinson finished with 10, giving him his second career double-double. The Heels are 8-0 when Maye leads the team in scoring (17) and rebounding. Since going with the smaller lineup starting with the Boston College game on Jan. 9, North Carolina has outrebounded opponents 170-119.
The Tar Heels came into the contest averaging 13.5 offensive rebounds a game and finished with 19 against the Yellow Jackets. Their 43.4 rebounds per game average is second in the nation.
Berry said Williams has stressed that all five players on the floor crash the boards in order to make up for a lack of size in the frontcourt.
“We have to make sure we have guys going to the rim,” Berry said. “After all the things we are doing defensively, Coach puts an emphasis on making sure guys get to the boards and making sure we secure the rebound, even myself.”
Berry finished with eight rebounds in the win Saturday.
Pinson, the Swiss army knife on UNC’s roster, has averaged 8.25 rebounds the last four wins and is third on the team behind Maye and Cam Johnson (5.9 rpg) this season with an average of 5 rebounds per game. Being the veteran he is, he knew not to panic when the Heels struggled early in the game.
“There was a lot of game left, and we have the next-play mentality,” Pinson said. “We know Coach is going to coach us, bottom line. He doesn’t want us to have those turnovers, but we’ve been through something like that before and we go to the next play and try to make up for it.”
While controlling the boards kept them alive, Johnson’s shooting triggered a run that allowed the Tar Heels to retake control of the game. Johnson (16 points) has scored 37 points in the two wins this week for the Tar Heels. He went 2-for-4 from 3-point range, improving North Carolina’s record to 4-0 when he makes multiple 3s. But Johnson recognized Saturday wasn’t a terrific shooting day for the Tar Heels and knew they couldn’t settle for long shots.
Still nursing a single-digit lead to start the second half, four of their first seven baskets in the second half were layups or dunks. Two of those layups came after offensive rebounds.
“When things aren’t falling you got to try to get stuff at the basket,” Johnson said. “I think we did a good job of getting second-chance points today, and that changed the way in which we scored.”