Resurgent Tar Heels offense must solve Virginia

Jan. 19, 2014 @ 09:40 PM

North Carolina finally had a breakout game offensively in Saturday’s 82-71 win over Boston College.

Today’s game at Virginia (7 p.m., ESPN) will help determine if the Tar Heels have truly turned the corner, or whether they were just taking advantage of the worst defense in the ACC.

The Cavaliers (13-5, 4-1 ACC) rank fourth in the nation in scoring defense at 56.6 points a game, which is one of the reasons they’re off to their best start in the ACC since going 4-1 in 1994-95.

The Tar Heels (11-6, 1-3) averaged 56.3 points and shot just 36.1 percent in their first three league games before making more than half their shots in both halves against the Eagles (5-13, 1-4), who are last in the 15-team conference in both points allowed and field goal percentage defense.

After the game Saturday, UNC coach Roy Williams said the better offensive effort came because “the stars and the moon were aligned properly. We’ve worked on our shooting the same way, but today the ball went in.”

However, sophomore guard Marcus Paige said that it was a combination of factors, including better shot selection and ball movement.

“We didn’t have guys taking uncharacteristic shots,” Paige said. “J.P. (Tokoto) was getting to the midrange, James Michael (McAdoo) was attacking the basket, Leslie (McDonald) and I were attacking the outside. When you have guys who understand their role and are taking the right shots, that usually helps.”

It started with Paige and McAdoo, the team’s top offensive weapons, who combined for 25 of UNC’s 36 first-half points on 10 of 14 shooting. Paige, who finished with 21 points and four assists, also benefited from a lineup change that had him starting at point guard for the first time this season.

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“I came here to play point guard,” Paige said. “The shooting guard thing, I’m going to do whatever I have to do to help the team, but at the same time (point guard) is my natural position. That’s where I’m most comfortable and probably most effective. It’s good to get extended minutes there for the first time.”

The Tar Heels also got a big second-half contribution from freshman center Kennedy Meeks, who had 12 points in his first seven halves of ACC play but had 10 points and six rebounds in the final 13:23 against BC.

Tokoto, who had 14 points, a career-high six assists and three steals, said that the defensive intensity also helped the offense. UNC recorded 24 points off of 18 Eagles turnovers.

“The more energy we have on the defensive end, we carry that over to offense,” Tokoto said.

On the verge of the school’s first-ever 0-4 start in the ACC, Williams made his first significant changes to the starting lineup against BC. He took out freshman point guard Nate Britt for the first time, moved Paige over and inserted senior shooting guard Leslie McDonald, who is shooting 24.4 percent in conference play. Williams also gave junior Jackson Simmons his first start at center. 

“I don’t know that Leslie has done enough to deserve it, but I wanted to do something,” Williams said. “Jackson plays harder than everybody else, and that’s the reason that he got the chance. I may stick with it in Charlottesville, but I may not. I just don’t want to sit back and not do anything so we tried to change it up.”

McDonald (3 of 11, 2 of 7 from behind the arc) continued his shooting slump, while Simmons needed four stitches after being elbowed in the head less than two minutes in and finished with one assist in eight minutes.

Regardless of who starts, UNC will need to continue its offensive resurgence if it hopes to parlay its first ACC win into something bigger.

“Obviously we didn’t want it to come in our fourth (conference) game, but we can’t change that now,” Paige said. “We’re playing in the moment, and we still have a lot of faith and confidence in our team, and this can maybe be a springboard to run off a couple wins and maybe get back in contention.”