The statistic stumped North Carolina guard Marcus Paige, though he wasn’t surprised by it. Sitting in front of his locker after North Carolina’s 73-64 victory at Miami on Saturday, the numbers made sense to him.
“I didn’t know that,” Paige said, referring to the 1-5 record UNC brought into Saturday in games with fewer than 67 possessions. “But if you told me which we had won more – low possession or high possession, I would have been able to figure we struggle a lot more in low possession games.
“Just because all year we’ve dealt with turnover problems.”
The Tar Heels encountered those again Saturday, especially in the first half, but in the second half they did two things well they hadn’t lately: They made shots and executed their half court offense. And they withstood an opponent’s run, showed some resolve and closed a game strongly.
UNC did something else, too: It forced its preferred pace. Miami, one of the ACC’s slowest teams, had been averaging about 62 possessions per game in conference play. The Tar Heels sped things up, though, and there were 71 possessions Saturday -- which was important given the Tar Heels’ struggles in slower-paced games.
Second-half collapses doomed No. 15 UNC (20-9, 10-6 ACC) in defeats at Louisville and Duke. The Tar Heels faded down the stretch, too, in losses against Virginia and N.C. State.
Then came Saturday. UNC, aided by 22 points from Brice Johnson, led for the final 17 1/2 minutes of the first half and for the first 8 1/2 minutes of the second. Miami, never all that far behind, took a 48-47 lead with 11 1/2 minutes to play after Ivan Cruz Uceda, a 6-foot-10 forward, made 3-pointers on consecutive possessions.
The crowd at the BankUnited Center – late arriving but then near capacity – was its loudest. And the short-handed Hurricanes (18-11, 8-8), who received just three minutes out of injured starting point guard and second-leading scorer Angel Rodriguez, were energized.
At similar points this season, and amid similar circumstances, the Tar Heels have faded. They didn’t Saturday.
“We weren’t worried about that,” said UNC junior forward J.P. Tokoto, who finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds. “They went on their run. We were confident that we were going to go on ours and keep hitting them. And that’s what we did. We kept it on them.”
After the Hurricanes took the lead, Paige gave it back to UNC with a 3-pointer. Moments later freshman guard Joel Berry made a 3 of his own that broke a tie, and the Tar Heels led the rest of the way.
UNC’s performance in the final act was the opposite of what transpired at Louisville and at Duke, and at the Smith Center against N.C. State. The way the Tar Heels executed in the half court was opposite, too, of their struggles in slower-paced games.
The difference – one, at least – was easy enough to identify. Johnson, the junior forward, finished with 22 points (his most against an ACC team) and 11 rebounds. He followed one of his worst performances of the season – that dismal four-point game against N.C. State – with one of his best.
Johnson moved more effectively. That was a point of emphasis, he said, after he and fellow forward Kennedy Meeks had too often clogged up the lane in recent games.
“That’s the biggest thing for us,” Johnson said. “Me and Kennedy weren’t just standing on one block and just not giving our guards any room to drive and kick it. We were able to move around, draw their bigs out and just do what we need to do.”
Johnson made 11 of 15 shots, and more than half of those made shots were dunks. It was another enigmatic performance for Johnson, who has developed a knack for dominating some games and disappearing in others.
“I have no idea,” Williams said of Johnson’s see-saw play. “If I could figure that out, we’d have changed him three years ago. But he was fantastic today and he was a non-factor in the game Tuesday. He didn’t play as poorly as I coached. …
“Today, 11-for-15 – a heck of a lot better. Maybe it’s the warm weather.”
UNC entered Saturday with losses in five of its past seven games. It likely expected to play a slower-paced game than what it prefers but instead the Tar Heels forced their preferred pace and often maximized their chances in the second half.
“One key is getting something out of those possessions,” Paige said. “If you turn the ball over you get nothing out of that possession. We had over a 20 percent loss of ball in the first half, and if your opportunities are limited you can’t give them away. …
“We shot 50-something percent in the second half, so we took advantage of those limited opportunities, since they didn’t let us really get the transition game going.”
The Tar Heels, in fact, shot 51.9 percent in the second half, and Williams thought his team’s shooting percentage was even better than that. UNC appeared to be at its best, too, when the result was most in doubt – when Miami erased a nine-point first-half deficit and took the lead with about 11 1/2 minutes to play.
The Tar Heels didn’t trail for long. There was the Paige 3, followed by the Berry 3, followed by a Johnson layup. Then, moments later, Johnson finished consecutive possessions with dunks and the Tar Heels led by 7 with about four minutes to go.
“We needed a win,” Johnson said, and it was especially true after UNC’s ugly loss against N.C. State.
Miami never threatened late and the Tar Heels left with a victory in the kind of game they’ve often lost.
The Tar Heels, who led most of the way, withstood a Miami run that gave the Hurricanes a brief lead near the midway point of the second half. Joel Berry’s 3-pointer that broke a 50-50 tie with about 8 1/2 minutes to play might have been the most important shot of the game. Said teammate Marcus Paige: “Ten or so games ago, Joel’s not taking that shot. He feels comfortable and confident enough in what he does that he can step up and make a big shot.”
The first half was ugly at times: The Tar Heels committed nine turnovers and shot just 40 percent. At one point they went more than 4 1/2 minutes without a point, and they went more than five minutes between made field goals. Even so, UNC led 32-30 at halftime.