North Carolina’s smaller lineup continues to come up big.
The Tar Heels (20-8, 10-5 ACC) won their fourth consecutive game Thursday night, 68-59 at Clemson, and are now 4-1 since coach Roy Williams opted to insert 6-foot-5 P.J. Hairston into the lineup for 6-11 Desmond Hubert. And UNC continued to show signs that it’s all starting to come together -- and at the right time.
Senior guard Dexter Strickland, looking healthier and healthier as the season has progressed, led the Tar Heels with 16 points. Point guard Marcus Paige continued to show more confidence in his offense, finishing with 10 points and four assists. And Reggie Bullock did a little bit of everything yet again, recording 12 points, 6 assists and 9 rebounds.
A closer look at the Tar Heels’ victory at Littlejohn Coliseum:
Turning point: The score was knotted 18-18 with about 10 minutes to go in the first half when UNC broke away with a 12-2 run. Reserve Leslie McDonald jump-started it with back-to-back 3-pointers, Hairston added a 3, and forward James Michael McAdoo added a three-point play to give the Tar Heels a 30-20 lead.
The Tar Heels didn’t play a particularly pretty second half, as the Tigers outrebounded them and clawed to within seven points with a minute left in the game. But UNC’s cushion was plenty, especially against a foe that has struggled to score this season.
“Well, we’re happy to get an ACC win on the road,'' Williams said. "There’s no question about that. But boy, we finished the game about as ugly as you can finish it. We missed some free throws. They outrebounded us by 14 in the second half, and they ended up outrebounding us by nine for the game. You can’t have that and be very good. We got sloppy."
Players(s) of the game: Strickland made 7 of his 9 shot attempts and also added 3 rebounds and 4 assists.
What it means for UNC: Security. Beating a team with an RPI near the mid-100s might not exactly turbocharge the Tar Heels’ ever-strengthening NCAA résumé, but a loss likely would have hurt.
The victory kept the Tar Heels even with Virginia (which upset No. 3 Duke later Thursday night) for third place in the ACC standings; the top four seeds earn a first-day bye in the upcoming league tournament.
What it means for Clemson: More growing pains. Entering the game, the Tigers ranked last in the ACC in scoring (61.8 points per game) and 10th in field-goal percentage (42.6). And they were not helped by the fact that starter K.J. McDaniels, one of only two Tigers averaging double figures (10.7 ppg), sat out Thursday due to an ankle injury. The Tigers shot 39.7 percent for the game.
Etc.: The victory secured UNC’s 40th 20-win season in the last 43 years. … UNC reserve big man Joel James, who had missed four straight games because of a concussion, returned and played two minutes.
Up next: Clemson plays at Virginia Tech on Saturday; UNC hosts Florida State on Sunday.