Funny what a few wins will do for a team.
North Carolina’s loss at Clemson on Jan. 30 was its third straight and left the Tar Heels with a 5-5 ACC record and bogged down in the middle of the conference standings.
But Theo Pinson, who had injured his shoulder in the first half of the loss to the Tigers, saw something in the second half — the way the Tar Heels came back and their effort — that that he liked.
“I’m excited,” Pinson said then. “If we play like we did in the second half, we’ll be fine.”
For the most part, that’s the way UNC (19-7, 8-5 ACC) has played and Pinson was right. Three wins later, the Tar Heels are back in contention for a double-bye in the ACC tournament and have a chance to start the NCAA tournament in Charlotte.
After the 82-78 loss at Clemson, neither seemed realistic for this UNC team. But Pinson’s injury didn’t turn out to be serious, he was back in the lineup the next game, and the Heels have started to find more scoring balance.
They can build on their hot streak on Monday night with a home game with Notre Dame (15-10, 5-7 ACC). If they play like they did last week, in wins over Duke and N.C. State, the Tar Heels will be primed for a run in Brooklyn in the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament.
In that Clemson loss, UNC fell behind 44-28 at the half. Then the Heels rallied, behind Cam Johnson and Joel Berry, to win the second half 50-38. They didn’t win the game but there were lessons to be learned in how they played defensively to get back into the game.
UNC’s defense hasn’t been perfect, N.C. State did score 52 in the second half of Saturday’s 96-89 UNC win, but it has been better than that first half of the Clemson game.
UNC’s scoring balance has also been better. Johnson and Berry were the only two players who scored in double-figures in the Clemson loss. Since then — in wins over Pitt, Duke and State — at least four players have scored in double-figures.
Junior guard Kenny Williams, in particular, has jump-started the offense with his outside shooting. Williams has made 11 of 20 3-pointers and averaged 15.3 points per game during the winning streak. His 3 with 1:33 left on Saturday, with UNC clinging to an 85-83 lead, was the biggest shot in the game for the Tar Heels.
In the six games prior to UNC’s winning streak, Williams had gone 3 of 21 from 3 and averaged just 6.6 points per game.
UNC coach Roy Williams said he kept asking the unassuming junior guard from Midlothian, Va. if he was alright physically and mentally during the slump. The player’s answer was the same each time, “I’m fine.”
“So I’m not going to try talk him into being bad,” the coach said.
The Heels’ resurgence comes at the right time. The top four seeds get a double-bye in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament. UNC started Sunday in a fourth-place tie with Louisville, who they will face on Saturday.
After Monday’s home game with Notre Dame, all four of UNC’s final regular-season games will be what the NCAA tournament selection committee considers “Quadrant 1” games.
Road games with Louisville (No. 42 in the RPI), Syracuse (No. 38) and Duke (No. 9) plus the home game with Miami (No. 25), gives UNC plenty of chances to improve its NCAA seed.
The committee released its “First 16” on Sunday and UNC was a No. 3 seed. Virginia (a No. 1 seed) and Duke (a No. 2 seed) would get to start the NCAA tournament in Charlotte based on Sunday’s seedings.
UNC can jump Duke, or Clemson (also a No. 3 seed), for the second spot in Charlotte, which would make their path to a third straight Final Four a little bit easier.
After UNC left Clemson after a three-game losing streak, that didn’t seem possible. After three straight ACC wins, it’s all in front of the Tar Heels.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
Notre Dame at No. 21 UNC
When: 7 p.m., Monday
Where: Smith Center, Chapel Hill
TV/radio: ESPN, 106.1-WTKK
Notre Dame (15-10, 5-7 ACC)
G Matt Farrell 16.5 ppg, 5.2 apg
G T.J. Gibbs 16.3 ppg, 3.1 apg
G Rex Pflueger 9.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg
F Austin Torres 1.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg
F Martinas Geben 10.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg
UNC (19-7, 8-5 ACC)
G Joel Berry 17.4 ppg, 3.1 apg
G Kenny Williams 11.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg
G Cam Johnson 13.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg
G Theo Pinson 8.7 ppg, 4.5 apg
F Luke Maye 18.7 ppg, 10.5 rpg
Storyline: Notre Dame has won two straight, after losing seven straight. The return of senior point guard Matt Farrell, who did not play in the first game with UNC (a 69-68 UNC win), has been a big help for coach Mike Brey’s squad.