Confidence restored in Carolina

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Out of shape and physically unimpressive, the media horde that follows North Carolina basketball is similar to most around the country. Yet during the Tar Heels’ 1-4 start in ACC play, head coach Roy Williams joked his team wasn’t much better.

“At that point, we didn’t think we could beat five of [the media contingent present] and y’all don’t look that impressive as a basketball team,” Williams said.

North Carolina can exhale now that the same can no longer be said about the Heels.

They’ve got the sorely needed confidence boost after the sluggish start to conference play, capped off with Tuesday’s 75-63 win over Maryland. The Heels now own a four-game winning streak -- their longest of the season -- and are above .500 in league play for the first time.

“We’ve definitely hit our stride, our defensive intensity has increased, and it’s a lot different than it was the first couple of ACC games,” said sophomore guard Marcus Paige, who scored a game-high 25 points, his personal best in a conference game. “That’s what allowed us to be successful, so if we keep that up I think we’re going to reel off a couple more wins hopefully.”

The Heels will need every bit of their newfound confidence. They enter arguably their toughest four-game stretch in conference play, starting with Saturday’s game at Notre Dame. Following the game in South Bend, Ind., the Heels return home for Duke and Pittsburgh before ending with a trip to Florida State.

Back when Carolina couldn’t beat the media, those four games truly would have been cause for anxiety. Now, they are a simply a welcomed challenge.

“I think they are more confident,” Williams said. “I think they’ve bought in to the sense of urgency issue that we’ve been preaching all year long. I think we are getting a little better defensively.”

Senior guard Leslie McDonald said the turnaround came when the team went “back to basics” and raised their intensity in practice. He added that everyone was pushing themselves a little bit harder and it has paid off in their wins.

“We had the mind frame of we had to be more competitive -- and that’s not talk,” McDonald said. “You can’t just teach somebody to be more competitive; you’ve got to have that will inside of you.”

The confidence factor has manifested itself in many ways for the Heels. Check the fast starts they’ve had in games against NC State and Maryland. They led by 14 points after eight minutes against the Wolfpack and had jumped ahead by 16 points in just five minutes against the Terps.

“It doesn’t always happen, but it’s definitely something that helps us when we see what we’re capable of doing,” junior forward James Michael McAdoo said. “It definitely gives us that cushion as far as NC State, and then [Maryland] just getting that little cushion where we can afford to make mistakes.”

That’s also where confidence comes in because Maryland, after trailing by 16 in the first half, managed to cut its deficit to three. But every time the Terps made a push, Carolina had a response and expanded its lead to the point where it never was less than six in the second half.

McAdoo had 12 points and eight rebounds, but Williams added that his stat line wasn’t reflective of the effort he brought to the floor. And fortunately for the Heels, he has been consistently bringing energy to the lineup.

“His effort has really been important to us the last four or five games,” Williams said.

The next four games could determine a lot about what direction the Heels’ season will go. But the good thing for the Heels, according to forward Brice Johnson, is the past four games established them back on the right path.

“We know we can be really good when we play with a sense of urgency like we did in the first five minutes of the game,” said Johnson, who went 8-for-8 from the field and had 19 points. “You see everybody was running around having a good time, stealing the ball. ... We play like that every night, we can keep this streak going.”