CHAPEL HILL North Carolina’s sophomore point guard Marcus Paige had predicted that the Tar Heels would learn something about themselves – good or bad – following a disheartening defeat early last week at Virginia.
It had been a long stretch of days following that loss – days filled with self-doubt and questions, days of searching for answers the Tar Heels hoped existed. On the night before their game on Sunday against Clemson, they gathered for one last pregame lesson. They watched film of some of their best wins this season, and they remembered.
“We watched some film on that just to remind us that we’re a good team,” Paige said after UNC’s 80-61 victory against Clemson. “And we can be a good team, if we just do the little things and play hard – like the things we’ve been talking about.”
UNC (12-7, 2-4 ACC) did those things, finally, against the Tigers (13-6, 4-3), who arrived at the Smith Center hoping that maybe this would be the year that their long, historic losing streak in Chapel Hill might end. Instead they left with their 57th loss in 57 games at UNC, which found its energy, hustle and intensity after searching for weeks for them.
Afterward, UNC coach Roy Williams turned to Brad Frederick, the team’s director of basketball operations, and shared a brief observation.
“I said something quickly to Brad; that’s the hardest we’ve played in several weeks,” Williams said. “But I’m going to try to keep emphasizing it, screaming, stomping – whatever it takes kind of thing, but they’ve got to bring it. And when they do that, we’ve got a chance to be a good team.”
For long stretches on Sunday night, the Tar Heels played as well as they have this season. It wasn’t a coincidence, either, that UNC looked good while getting a bit dirty.
UNC doesn’t keep a running list of those who dive on the court during games, Paige said, but the Tar Heels likely set a season high for floor burns and red knees on Sunday night. Those hustle plays in the first half helped UNC turn a close game into a rout.
“Tonight, just overall, you saw effort everywhere,” Paige said. “On the backboards, guys tipping the ball, guys diving for it. That kind of stuff, even though it doesn’t seem like it means a lot, it’s a really big part of the game.”
The Tar Heels led 14-11 with about 12 minutes to play in the first half. From there, they held Clemson to one made field goal the rest of the half, and UNC led 37-21 at intermission. For about 19 minutes – a stretch that included the final 12 minutes before halftime – the Tigers made one shot from the field.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, played relentlessly and with a sense of hunger that had been missing in recent weeks. McAdoo was the catalyst. He finished with 22 points and seven rebounds, and played with an energy that defied his usual stoicism.
He spent some time on the floor, scrapping, and in the air, too. After he made a layup in the first half, and was fouled on the play, he high-fived a fan in the front row behind the UNC basket. Moments later, he outran Clemson in transition and finished with an authoritative two-handed dunk that gave the Tar Heels a 46-23 lead.
“As you can see, all my teammates are able to feed off that,” McAdoo said of his energy. “And I’m able to feed off them.”
Williams credited McAdoo for providing intensity early, and for playing with a style that his teammates tried to emulate. His energy seemed to spread. Paige finished with 15 points, 13 in the second half, and Kennedy Meeks with 11 points and eight rebounds – his third consecutive game with double-figure points.
Offensively, UNC shot 55.4 percent against Clemson, which entered with one of the best field goal percentage defenses in the country. Defensively, the Tar Heels were the best they’d been in a while, and held the Tigers to 34 percent shooting. The Tar Heels led by as many as 31 in the second half.
“We were all in,” said UNC senior guard Leslie McDonald, who finished with 12 points. “After that (Virginia) game, we just evaluated ourselves. And at the end of the day, it came to a sense of urgency. That’s what we talked about at the beginning of the game.”
That’s what McDonald and his teammates talked about the night before the game, too, when they watched highlights from their victories against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky – teams that began the season ranked among the top three in the nation. The Tar Heels on Saturday didn’t watch the easy plays, or the pretty ones.
Instead, Paige said, they watched the gritty plays – “the winning plays,” he said.
“You talk about winning basketball plays, when James Michael tonight dives on the floor and gets us an extra possession,” Paige said. “When J.P. (Tokoto) dives on the floor in the first half. Those are winning basketball plays.
“And they showed us that when we make those and we have a conscious effort to keep making those and everything else goes a lot more smoothly.”
In some ways, Paige said, it was almost as if UNC had forgotten how to make those plays. The Tar Heels remembered on Sunday night, and in the final moments, with the outcome long decided, Williams inserted the walk-ons into a game UNC hopes will be a turning point.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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