Luke DeCock

DeCock: Tar Heels turn corner, with long way yet to go

In spurts, North Carolina can be the best team in the country. When the Tar Heels are at their best, few can compare. There's little doubt about that.

There's also no doubt doing it in fits and starts doesn’t win national championships, or ACC tournaments, or ACC regular seasons – and there's been too much of that from North Carolina this season, especially of late.

This is the challenge that still faces the Tar Heels, even after Sunday’s 85-64 win over Pittsburgh, as they enter the stretch run of the season.

It's not about “toughness” or 3-point shooting or free throws or defensive intensity, although all of that plays a part. It's about consistently and regularly living up to the level of the talent that this team can put on the floor, and that hasn't happened often enough this season.

After falling short in a pair of ACC losses and a narrow win over last-place Boston College, the Tar Heels got closer to a complete performance Sunday – and they were running out of time to turn things around, with Duke up next Wednesday, with Miami and trips to N.C. State and Virginia close behind.

“We didn't want to go through that situation, but it was a learning experience for us,” Brice Johnson said. “We responded in a great way today. We didn't play as well as we could have but we can build off this.”

Sunday, they were beaten badly on the offensive boards at both ends – in terms of both raw numbers and percentages, with 19 for Pittsburgh and one for North Carolina, which UNC coach Roy Williams called “mind-boggling” – and benefited from some self-inflicted Pittsburgh turnovers, but they also knocked down 3-pointers and free throws and dug in defensively, not things this team has done on a regular basis and hadn't been doing even before the recent skid.

After jumping out to a 17-4 lead and maintaining a 13-point lead at halftime, the Tar Heels let Pittsburgh get within seven points early in the second half before regrouping and pulling away.

That may sound like a relatively long list of minuses after a 21-point win by a team that's 21-4 and 10-2 in the ACC, good for a 1 ½-game lead over second-place Miami. It really isn't. The remaining issues Sunday, on an afternoon when the Tar Heels did so much else so well, still stand out in sharp relief because of how good this team looks when it's clicking, and because when any team shoots 59.3 percent as North Carolina did, it covers up a multitude of sins, especially for a team as multitalented and versatile as this one.

It's what happens when the Tar Heels don't shoot this well that remains a concern, although less of one after Sunday's more well-rounded effort at both ends of the court.

“My guys, they don't ever loaf, but there are different degrees of how much you can give,” Williams said. “I think we need to do a better job of that more consistently at the highest level, and I think we did that today.”

The Tar Heels have no illusions about the way they were playing recently or even the way they played Sunday, as dramatic an improvement as it was. They knew they were better than the team that lost at Louisville and Notre Dame, and they know they're still better than the team that blew out Pittsburgh.

“Even when we were winning, before we lost those two in a row, we weren’t playing great basketball,” Marcus Paige said. “We were kind of just scraping by with wins. We had two reality checks back-to-back, Louisville and Notre Dame, and then we laid an egg at Boston College but we were able to execute down the stretch. So we just really wanted to buckle down and play harder.”

Those reality checks provoked a performance Sunday that was a considerable step forward. There's still a long way to go before the Tar Heels reach their ceiling.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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