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Tar Heels no longer just frontrunners

While getting accustomed to “Second-Half Marcus,” North Carolina is getting comfortable becoming a second-half team.

Before the Tar Heels' current 10-game win streak, they were frontrunners. If they led or were tied at halftime, they won the game. If they trailed, they lost. It happened every time.

Now the Heels have won their past three games when faced with a halftime deficit. The margins have incrementally gotten bigger too: from 36-33 at Florida State, to 37-30 against Duke and 34-26 at North Carolina State.

During its winning streak, Carolina has shot 54.4 percent from the field in the second half (and overtime). The first meeting with the Wolfpack (38.9 percent) was the only time that Carolina didn’t shoot a higher percentage in the second half. In four of those games (Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Wake Forest), the Heels shot more than 60 percent in the second half.

But this is more than about shooting. The Heels have shown more fight when behind than they did earlier in the season. The State win was exactly the kind of game they previously would have lost -- especially after trailing by six in overtime.

“You can say that prior to the beginning of the season, we didn’t have the mental toughness to get through something like this,” senior guard Leslie McDonald said. “We probably would have laid there and died, but we didn’t give up. Marcus [Paige] took control of the team. Mac (James Michael McAdoo) scored the big bucket toward the end and tied us up. Everybody didn’t give in. We all knew what we wanted to do, and we executed it.”

Everyone outside of Paige and J.P. Tokoto was struggling against the Pack. The Heels had 11 turnovers in the first half -- including two shot-clock violations and Brice Johnson stepping over the line while making an in-bounds pass. McAdoo missed his first seven shot attempts and finished just 2 of 11. But they fought through all of their mistakes.

“This says two things, that we can afford to not play our best and still win,” McAdoo said. “But also we can win in a variety of ways. Looking back at the past couple games where the starting five all scores over double digits; some games we only have a couple of guys putting up big numbers; and games like [Wednesday] when everyone plays subpar and Marcus just says, ‘Watch me work.’”

Teams that advance deep in the NCAA tournament usually encounter a game like Wednesday. If the Heels are faced with that situation in the postseason, they’ll have a winning example to reference and a reason to keep believing.

“We’ve been in a lot of tough games, and I just think we have a lot of confidence in each other and the coaching staff has a lot of confidence in us,” freshman guard Nate Britt said. “With everyone knowing that we have each other’s backs, we just keep fighting until the end of the game.”