North Carolina has recently played by the motto, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
Against both Notre Dame on Tuesday, and Miami on Saturday, UNC played a sub-par first half, and a strong second half. Both resulted in wins — the most recent, an 85-76 victory over Miami. And that comes one week after suffering a 21-point loss to Louisville.
The game against Miami (9-8, 1-4 ACC) was close throughout. After committing nine first-half turnovers, the Tar Heels allowed the Hurricanes to stick around. Miami was on fire from 3, shooting 7-for-14 from behind the 3-point line by halftime
There were 10 lead changes in the first half, and the Hurricanes tied the score at 37.
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But in the second half, the 13th-ranked Tar Heels (14-4, 4-1 ACC) played like they were supposed to. They picked up their intensity, contested shots and limited their turnovers. Seniors Cam Johnson, who had 22 points, and Kenny Williams, who had 16 points, both hit clutch 3-pointers in the last seven minutes of the game to help seal the victory.
UNC is without a doubt a better team than Miami, which has only seven scholarship players on its roster. But every game in the ACC matters when it comes post-season time, and the Tar Heels got a much-needed win.
Here are five observations from the game:
1. Cam Johnson found his stroke
The 6-9, 210-pound graduate senior had hit a 3-pointer in each of his first 15 games this season. But against Louisville and Notre Dame, he did not make one, and went 0-for-7.
Despite his shooting slump, Johnson said he remained confident. Against Miami, he was 5-for-7 from behind the 3-point line, which was the second most 3’s he has hit in a game this season.
“Sometimes you miss some, sometimes you make some,” Johnson said, “You just can’t get too high with the high points, and too low with the low. I’m going to get shots up, and keep shooting with confidence.”
His 22 points was also the second-most he had scored in a game.
No 3-pointers were bigger than the two he hit in the last seven minutes.
Miami point guard Chris Lykes, who finished with 20 points, had just cut the Tar Heels’ lead to one point on a driving layup. On the very next possession, the Tar Heels went down and found Johnson for an open 3-pointer.
Miami forward Ebuka Izundu answered with a layup and a free throw a few seconds later to bring the Hurricanes within one point again. But Johnson hit another one to put the Tar Heels back up by four with 5:54 remaining.
“I thought those were huge shots for us,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Kenny’s shots were as well, but Cam’s a really good shooter. If he doesn’t make those, then all of a sudden, the crowd gets into it more and more and more.”
The Tar Heels are at their best when Johnson is shooting well. They are 12-1 when he hits two or more 3-pointers in a game, and 10-1 when he shoots 50 percent or better from the floor.
2. Nassir Little has another good offensive performance
Little, a 6-6, 220-pound freshman had another solid offensive performance on Saturday. He scored 12 points in 12 minutes. Had he not been in foul trouble throughout the game, he likely would have scored more. Little was 3-of-4 from the floor.
When he got the ball, he was aggressive and did not hesitate. He looked much more comfortable with the ball.
In his first three games of ACC play, Little had averaged 4.6 points per game, and was shooting 29 percent from the floor. He was also 0-for-4 from 3.
“I had to re-evaluate things, take a step back,” Little said Saturday. “At times it’s easy to get discouraged, but I had talks with coach and I think they really helped me out just trying to get through a tough moment, figure out the college season. Regardless, everybody goes through things, and I think that really helped me out.”
If Little can stay on the floor, his scoring adds another dimension for the Tar Heels’ offense. He also had 12 points in a 75-69 win over Notre Dame.
Little said he’s reacting more and thinking less.
“I’m being who I am, just playing aggressively, and good things happen when I am,” Little said.
The most impressive thing about Little’s performance, though, was the frequency in which he was able to get to the free throw line. He was 6-for-8 from the charity strip. He took more than half of UNC’s 14 free throws. When Little is aggressive, he’s hard to stop. In recent games, teams have had trouble guarding him, and on Saturday, the Hurricanes resorted to fouling Little.
That was all they could do to stop him.
3. The Tar Heels shot better than 50 percent
The Tar Heels as a team had struggled shooting recently. They hadn’t shot 50 percent or better in seven games since their 103-90 win over Gonzaga on Dec. 15. But the shots went in against Miami.
Roy Williams had claimed his team was a really good shooting team, but up until this point we hadn’t seen much of it.
The Tar Heels were 45 percent (9-for-20) from 3 on Saturday, and 55 percent (33-for-60) from the floor overall.
Five players scored 12 points or more.
Senior forward Luke Maye, who had 14 points and nine rebounds, said a big reason for the improvement was shot selection. The Tar Heels took much better shots than they had in the past.
“I thought we had some guys that knew what was a good shot for them,” Maye said, “and I thought that really helped us offensively move the ball around, and make some tough plays.”
The Tar Heels assisted on 26 of their 33 field goals. Kenny Williams and UNC freshman guard Coby White, who had 15 points, combined for 15 assists and only three turnovers. The pair committed no turnovers in the second half.
4. Tar Heels had trouble defending the 3 in the first half
Defending the 3 hasn’t been much of a problem this season, but not because UNC has been good at guarding it. Many teams have had open shots, and just missed them.
In the first half of UNC’s game against Miami, the Hurricanes had open 3 after open 3. They started the first half 5-for-15 from 2, but 7-for-14 behind the 3-point line. Miami spaced the floor well at times, and used screens to get guards Chris Lykes and Anthony Lawrence open. The two players combined to shoot 5-for-6 from 3 in the first half .
Miami’s 3-point shooting initially gave UNC trouble.
So in the second half, Roy Williams said the Tar Heels made an adjustment.
“We started switching screen on the ball, and that gave us a little more help...” he said. The Hurricanes were 2-for-7 in the second half from 3.
5. Turnovers kept Miami in game
When the Tar Heels turn the ball over, they struggle. When they limit turnovers, they are hard to stop. The proof is there in UNC’s last two games.
Against Notre Dame, the Tar Heels committed nine turnovers in the first half, and two in the second. After tailing by three points at halftime, the Tar Heels outscored the Fighting Irish by nine in the second half.
Against Miami, the Tar Heels committed nine turnovers in the first half, and the score was tied by halftime. In the second half, they committed six turnovers, and had a much better half, winning by nine points.
“For us, I like the way we took better care of the basketball in the second half, but still, we still had six turnovers,” coach Williams said. “It’s crazy. We’ve got to cut down on our turnovers.”
The Tar Heels play No. 9 Virginia Tech (15-2, 4-1) on Monday.
The Hokies have the seventh-most efficient offense in the country, scoring 119.3 points per 100 possessions, according to kenpom.com. A big reason for that is because they are one of the top teams at forcing turnovers. They force a turnover on 24 percent of their opponents possessions, which is top 10 in the country.