Tar Heels put away taller Terps
Despite losing four first-round NBA picks a year ago, North Carolina is back in the ACC Tournament final for the third straight season.
No. 3-seeded UNC led the entire second half and held on for a 79-76 semifinal win over No. 7 Maryland on Saturday at the Greensboro Coliseum.
The Tar Heels (24-9) will face top-seeded Miami (26-6) in today’s championship game (1 p.m., WRAL/ESPN).
UNC featured a balanced attack, with 15 points from both Reggie Bullock and Dexter Strickland and 13 points from both James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, who played after getting eight stitches in his left hand Friday night.
The fifth starter, freshman Marcus Paige, scored eight but had the Tar Heels’ last two field goals, including a floater over 7-1 center Alex Len with the shot clock winding down that put UNC up 77-72 with 36 seconds left.
Likely needing a win to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive, Maryland (22-12) still had a chance to tie the game with 11 seconds left. The Terrapins ran a play for Logan Aronhalt, a 44 percent 3-point shooter, but his 30-footer immediately off an inbounds pass was an airball. When Bullock got the rebound, the Tar Heels ran out the clock before Maryland could foul.
Len had 20 points and seven rebounds against UNC’s small lineup, which doesn’t have a traditional center, and Dez Wells had 15 points and nine rebounds one day after scoring a career-high 30 in a quarterfinal upset of Duke.
But the Terrapins failed to advance to their first tournament final since 2004 and have now lost to UNC seven straight overall and 10 in a row in the ACC Tournament.
Hairston’s availability was a game-time decision after the sophomore lacerated the webbing between his ring and middle fingers in Friday’s win over Florida State.
But he felt comfortable dribbling and catching hard passes from Strickland in the morning, then got the go-ahead from UNC coach Roy Williams during warmups.
“He was one tough sucker today,” Williams said. “He’s been a pansy most of the time I’ve known him, but today he was one tough sucker.”
Hairston wound up playing a career-high 36 minutes and made his first two 3-pointers as UNC raced out to a 24-12 lead.
“We were dead at the start of the game,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “We just had no energy whatsoever (after an) emotional win last night, beating the No. 2 team in the country.”
But the Terrapins scored the next 10 points, providing an indication of how the game would go. The Tar Heels led by as many as 13 midway through the second half, but they never could pull away.
As usual since the Tar Heels started using Hairston as a 6-5 power forward, UNC was beaten inside — Maryland had a 24-4 edge in second-chance points and a 32-22 advantage in points in the paint. But the perimeter-oriented lineup had only seven turnovers, tying a season-low it set Friday, and had more transition opportunities than Maryland.
McAdoo and Paige also played the final four minutes with four personal fouls.
It was the second straight game in which McAdoo battled foul trouble after the sophomore played a season-low 14 minutes before fouling out on Friday, a bad sign for the Tar Heels considering he has become UNC’s only big man in the revamped starting lineup.
But the team got major contributions from Bullock and Strickland. Bullock played 38 minutes and added game highs of nine rebounds and four assists with no turnovers. Strickland, who has struggled from outside this season, shot 7-of-12 and made his first five long jumpers.
“They put a big guy on me, and I kind of took that as them being disrespectful, thinking I can’t shoot, so I just took advantage,” said Strickland, who missed the 2012 tournament with a torn ACL.
After making it back to the final, now the Tar Heels have a chance to do something that their four departed stars (Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Kendall Marshall) didn’t accomplish — win the ACC championship, which UNC hasn’t done since 2008.
Miami beat the Tar Heels twice by a combined 35 points during the regular season.
“We are pleased with the ‘W’ and know we can play a heck of a lot better, and we have to play a lot better,” Williams said. “We’re getting ready to play somebody who has beaten us twice by about eight million points.”
UNC 79, Maryland 76
Percentages: FG .410, FT .692. 3-Point Goals: 8-21, .381 (Faust 5-9, Wells 1-2, Allen 1-4, Aronhalt 1-5, Layman 0-1). Team Rebounds: 2. Blocked Shots: 0. Turnovers: 10 (Layman 2, Mitchell 2, Wells, Cleare, Len, Howard, Padgett, Faust). Steals: 4 (Wells, Layman, Len, Faust).
Percentages: FG .443, FT .692. 3-Point Goals: 7-21, .333 (Bullock 3-6, Hairston 2-8, Paige 1-1, McDonald 1-5, Strickland 0-1). Team Rebounds: 4. Blocked Shots: 3 (Strickland, Hairston, Hubert). Turnovers: 7 (Strickland 3, McAdoo 2, Paige, Johnson). Steals: 6 (Johnson 2, McAdoo, Tokoto, Bullock, Paige).
Officials—Karl Hess, Brian Dorsey, Ray Natili.