CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina got its confidence back with a five-game win streak against teams it was “supposed” to beat. Win No. 6 in its streak brought a bit of validation.
The Tar Heels jumped No. 25 Pittsburgh for fourth place in the ACC standings with their 75-71 victory over the Panthers on Saturday. It proved what guard Marcus Paige has known in the course of the streak: The Heels are a different team than the bunch that stumbled to a 1-4 start in ACC play.
“I’m guessing we were predicted to win the first two conference games we played in our league, too, and we didn’t take care of business,” Paige said. “Those five games -- and especially this game -- were huge for us confidence-wise. This kind of shows that we really have improved. We’re not the same team that had the highs and lows earlier in the year.”
Observations from an important victory:
1. UNC forward James Michael McAdoo has been comfortable playing in the background, but he’s now front and center for this team. McAdoo’s 24 points and 12 rebounds marked his fifth double-double this season. The Heels now feed off his energy and intensity.
“His approach is just different; even in practice, he goes hard every possession now,” Paige said. “ I’m not saying he didn’t before; it’s just that extra level of focus and attention that he’s bringing is kind of contagious.”
McAdoo said the only thing that changed was learning how to tune out distractions and focusing on having fun.
“I’m not going to say at the beginning of the year I was stressed out and not having fun, because I was,” McAdoo said. “But at the end of the day I just realized, when I’m out there, I’m a junior, I’m a leader. My teammates are looking at me to make plays, and I need to do that.”
2. Carolina has to finish stronger. The Heels led by seven with 55 seconds left, but Pitt still managed to cut it to three and had a chance to tie the score in the final 20 seconds.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams called it "weird stuff" that allowed the Panthers to nearly complete the comeback, such as the officials reviewing the monitor and overturning a possession to give Pitt the ball. McAdoo fouling out on a loose ball scramble. Jackson Simmons going to the floor for a different loose ball scramble, but his feet deemed out of bounds when he recovered it.
“I felt like I was in the ’72 Olympics,” Williams said. ‘That’s what it felt like out there.”
Then there was Pitt’s leading scorer, Lamar Patterson, who had a team-high 16 points, with a wide open 3-point look that could have tied it with seven seconds left. Patterson got open on an out-of-bounds play with the Heels in zone.
“He’s a good shooter; I was hoping we got a Dean Dome type of bounce for us,” Paige said. “… I was just thankful we were able to get away with it.”
3. J.P. Tokoto is the team’s best defender. Tokoto defended Patterson for most of the game and helped hold him to an ineffective 5-of-15 from the field. The key for Tokoto was forcing Patterson to drive where the Heels rotation could help out. That wasn’t an easy task with the amount of screens Patterson ran through.
“If I shadow like coach C.B. [McGrath] was telling me, I wouldn’t hit most of them,” Tokoto said. “I hit a few of them trying to deviate from the plan, but most of the screens I didn’t hit. There were a lot of them.”
4. The Heels are still unreliable as a team from the free throw line, but they can add Brice Johnson to the list of players who can have the ball late in a game. Johnson, who was shooting 66 percent on the season, went 7-of-10 from the line against the Panthers, including 3-of-4 in the final minute of play.
Johnson is shooting 74 percent (20-27) from the free throw line in conference play.
“I shoot them in practice, I shoot them after practice with coach [Hubert] Davis, just shoot them as much as I can,” Johnson said. “Sometimes it’s just myself; it’s not the way I shoot them, it’s me not using my legs in the middle of the game when I need to, that’s how I miss them.”