North Carolina coach Roy Williams said heading into the Michigan State game that he expected his team to play better than it did in Sunday’s loss at UAB.
I think it’s safe to say “playing better” didn’t actually equate to a double-digit win on the road against the nation's No. 1 team in his mind.
If you woke up this morning still unable to explain North Carolina’s 79-65 win over Michigan State on Wednesday night, you’re probably not alone, but the evidence was right in front of you. Carolina set an early tone that this game would be different than its previous outing. The Heels actively disrupted passing lanes and racked up deflections, an unofficial, but all-important, barometer of hustle stats.
After UAB obliterated UNC on the boards 52-37 -- including 21 offensive rebounds -- it returned the favor against the Spartans. UNC enjoyed a 49-38 rebounding advantage and outscored MSU 19-10 in second-chance points.
The Heels' starting backcourt hadn’t totaled more than six rebounds in a game all season. Nate Britt accomplished that by himself in recording a season-best six boards. He had entered the game with a total of 11 rebounds in six games.
Marcus Paige also added five rebounds, which tied his season-high. And most importantly, sending its guards to the glass didn’t slow UNC down. Carolina was still able to get out in transition and held a slight 12-10 edge in fast-break points over the Spartans. (More proof that it maximized its transition game: UNC outscored Michigan State by 12 in points-off-turnovers, despite the Spartans having just one more.)
J.P. Tokoto, who played a good stint of the second half at shooting guard in the Heels’ big lineup, recorded his first-ever double-double thanks to a career-high 10 rebounds.
Williams said the Heels couldn’t afford to become a one-dimensional team where they stood around waiting for Paige to handle the scoring. Five UNC players reached double figures, including a career-best 15 points from Kennedy Meeks.
Brice Johnson’s 14 points, six rebounds and two blocks equated to what I thought was his best game of the season when you consider the competition and the stakes in this game. (Yes, it was even better than his 24 points and 12 rebounds against Richmond.) His back-to-back baskets after the Spartans tied the game at 49 put Carolina ahead for good. Johnson and Meeks combined to help the Heels outscore the Spartans 44-28 in points the paint.
Britt was scoreless and took only three shots against UAB. In fact, the Blazers sagged off him and dared him to shoot it. Against the Spartans, Britt played with the same attack-mode mentality he had against Louisville. He got to the rim, which meant he got to the free-throw line, where he made 7-of-8 attempts.
Would you believe that free throws were finally not a liability for the Heels? They cracked the 70 percent mark for just the third time this season in making 19-of-27 from the stripe.
Johnson said North Carolina didn’t move past its win over then-No. 3 Louisville. We'll find out on Saturday against UNC Greensboro if the Tar Heels have learned how to handle success.