Maybe it has to be freezing outside for the Tar Heels to get hot inside. That was certainly the case on a cold and snowy Saturday, when Carolina played perhaps its best game of the season and, at long last, shot the lights out in the second half of a 93-81 win over Virginia.
Great entertainment before an appreciative full house that braved the bad weather to make the high noon tip at the Smith Center. Not quite the journey made by Roy Williams, who flew to Minnesota Friday night to offer a scholarship to 6-5 recruit Rashad Vaughn and got back at 2:30 in the morning.
A second straight start for P.J. Hairston could not avoid another slow start for the Heels, who fell behind by 10 with some very casual defense before Williams read them the riot act during the first two TV timeouts.
But while the clamp-down “D” produced eight points off turnovers and a 5-0 dominance on the offensive board put Carolina ahead, Virginia finished its own torrid first-half with a 35-foot heave to tie the game at the horn. Get this: it was Jontel Evans’ second three-point attempt of the season and it may very well be his last. That’s how hot were the Wahoos.
The showcase event had already introduced UNC’s national championship indoor women’s tennis team, and at halftime Tyler Zeller received the 2012 Patterson Medal, the university’s highest student-athlete honor and then had his No. 44 jersey retired to the rafters as ACC Player of the Year, All-American and 2009 national championship team member. Clearly, a 7-foot thrill for the Cleveland Cavaliers rookie, who made his own late-night flight from Houston where he had played in the NBA Rising Stars game Friday.
Zeller’s parents also flew from Indiana to watch him be feted, missing their youngest son Cody’s game (IU against Purdue). On NBA all-star weekend, rookie cohorts Kendall Marshall and John Henson along with Tyler Hansbrough were in the house, with the original Tyler and UNC legend of lore Lennie Rosenbluth receiving honors of their own for being, well, themselves.
Whatever, it was a great day – as they say – to be a Tar Heel.
In the second half, after the Tar Heels opened with an 8-0 run, it was basically Carolina by committee versus Virginia’s splendid Joe Harris, who came across the country from a town of 400 with his coach to play in the ACC. Harris scored 13 of his team’s first 17 points.
Hairston chaired the committee to finish with 29 points, a personal college high and the most any Tar Heel has scored this season. But he was only one of the group that countered Harris’ best college game (27 points on 10-for-13 shooting). While Harris scored 20 in the second half, he was answered by Hairston, Reggie Bullock, Marcus Paige and Dexter Strickland each time. As the temperature dropped outside, the Heels got hotter, hitting 7-of-11 three-pointers that helped them climb to just under 50 percent for the game.
Defense- and tempo-minded Virginia gave up the second most points since coach Tony Bennett left his heart almost a thousand miles north of San Francisco (Pullman, Washington, actually) and 24 more points than his Cavs have allowed in any other game this season.
In fact, the Tar Heels scored one more point in the second half (53) than they did in the entire 61-52 loss in Charlottesville last January. The 53 were also more points than Virginia allowed in 10 other complete games this season.
The Cavaliers came to town No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense, but finished hanging their heads in discouragement as Carolina kept pouring it on, leading at one point by 18 on Hairston’s last of six three balls, another college career high. In two straight starts, the 6-6 sophomore from Greensboro has totaled 52 points and 15 rebounds.
Check out the box score and you will find more impressive numbers besides four Tar Heels in double figures and James Michael McAdoo scoring 9 to go along with his 10 rebounds. Paige is officially no longer playing like a freshman and senior Strickland had six assists, one turnover and several coast-to-coast sprints to nifty lay-ins. With J.P. Tokoto down to three minutes and Desmond Hubert on the court for only one, Williams may have found his eight-man rotation, which includes Leslie McDonald, Brice Johnson and Jackson of-all-trades Simmons.
All the analytics have shown the Tar Heels are better the longer Bullock and Hairston play together, so for now it looks like four guards and JMM, even though the hunky Hairston is far more than a guard. He goes to the glass like a power forward as well as firing his quick-trigger three. And his defense apparently has reached the level ol’ Roy wants it.
Before the game, Carolina was the “last one out” in the latest NCAA bracketology. But the win and Kentucky’s loss not only makes the Tar Heels an NCAA team (for the moment) but gives them an inside track on a top-four finish in the ACC, which means they would get Thursday off at the tournament in Greensboro. Still conjecture, of course, there is much work to be done this week.
First comes a trip to Georgia Tech Tuesday night, where top-four teams should beat bottom-feeders, and then the anticipated rematch with the Wolfpack on more friendly footing. Warmer weather is forecast Monday-Friday, but maybe it will start snowing again by 4 o’clock Saturday. The Heels will have to be just as hot as they were a week before – and not so generous on defense — to send State home howling in agony.
“You can’t let a team shoot 58 percent against you and win very often,” Williams said in a serious understatement. It was the highest percentage allowed by the Tar Heels in victory since he’s been back in Chapel Hill.