Second-half swap revives Tar Heels

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- When North Carolina guard Reggie Bullock, along with four other reserves, got the call to check in, en masse, early in Monday night’s second half, the sophomore knew exactly what coach Roy Williams expected.

Bring energy. Bring a lot of it.

(Or else.)

“We knew we were doing a poor job of playing great defense … that we were capable of playing better than we were playing,’’ Bullock said after UNC beat Nicholls 99-49 at the Smith Center.

No. 5/6 UNC didn’t necessarily need the points in the 14-6 run that Bullock, Justin Watts, P.J. Hairston, James Michael McAdoo and Stilman White ultimately put together before the starters returned. The Tar Heels were already leading the undersized Colonels by 23 points when the reserves had checked in.

What Carolina (10-2) needed was a reminder: No foe should be taken for granted; that in order to have a chance to win the national title, they need to use every opportunity to improve. Which means playing focused, fast and hard.

“For us to be the team we need to be, we need to be willing to invest, and we have to be willing to do it on game night, and not just talk about it,’’ said Williams, who blamed himself for not having his team ready to compete (and threatened the team during the game with early-morning running if it didn't play better).

The Tar Heels, playing their second game in three nights, looked flat from the outset, missing shot after shot early. They made up for it on the boards, scoring their first 14 points on offensive rebounds. They used their natural height advantage (Nicholls’ tallest players were a pair of 6-foot-7 freshmen) to make up for the shots that rimmed out, or never made it to the rim in the first place.

UNC had already pulled down 39 rebounds by halftime (a figure that matched or exceeded their total for six games this season), and led 48-22.

But when it opened the second half by missing four shots, turning the ball over twice and allowing the Colonels to score a couple of buckets, Williams went to his tried-and-true move that lets just about everyone know he’s irked: a 5-for-5 swap.

And it worked.

When Kendall Marshall, Dexter Strickland, Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller checked back in with 11:43 left, the result was what Williams called “a really pretty exhibition of basketball for about four minutes”.

Zeller turned a Strickland steal into a layup. Marshall scored a couple of baskets. Henson recorded three of his seven blocks, and Zeller and Barnes notched swats, too.

By the time the starters needed a (non-punishment) breather with 7:14 left, UNC had reeled off a 16-1 run and led 79-33.

The lesson: “We knew that we were going to beat this team, and we can’t have that mindset,’’ Strickland said. “We have to go out there like we’re playing Texas and keep our focus.”

Or risk not having their focus when they play Texas on Wednesday.

In the end, UNC pulled down 72 rebounds, the most since 1956, tying the record for second-most in school history. Its 31 offensive rebounds were the most by a UNC team in the Williams era.

Strickland and McAdoo led the team with 14 points apiece, while Hairston chipped in 13 and Bullock recorded a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds).

Guard Bryan Hammond led Nicholls (4-8) with 15 points.

And Williams hopes he made his point.

“We are going to have games this year when James Michael, Reggie, P.J. and those guys have to do some things for us. So, we gained something with that group,’’ Williams said of his second-half five-for-five swap. “I think the starters gained something when they came back in. So I do think we learned in a lot of different ways tonight.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.