The best time to catch an upset usually comes during exam weeks or during the holidays. With William and Mary’s shooting prowess etched into the minds of the veteran Tar Heel players, this game loomed as one of those traps. But the Heels had last year’s memory and the burn of a bad loss just days ago to help prevent that collapse.
“It was good to actually get the bad taste out of our mouths from Texas and come out to play hard for the fans before we go home (for the holidays),” freshman Reggie Bullock said following the win.
Dexter Strickland led the Heels in scoring with 19 points while Tyler Zeller’s nine rebounds led Carolina on the boards. Harrison Barnes rebounded from a scoreless first half to finish with 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting.
John Henson managed six points, five rebounds and three blocks in just 11 minutes of action as the sophomore re-injured the thumb that has plagued him throughout the season.
“I have no idea about John,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said following the win, “It was swollen and really painful (at the half) so we decided not to play him anymore.”
(Williams did give a brief update later in the locker room after Henson’s visit with the doctor and it’s believed to be a re-aggravation of the same injury.)
For the night, Carolina shot poorly (44%) but held William and Mary to a miserable night from three-point land, as the visitors missed all twelve attempts from long range in the first half. After heating up in the second half, the Tribe finished 6-of-26 on threes, with sophomore forward Kyle Gaillard leading the scoring with 25 points including three second-half dunks - one over Zeller.
"We knew he was very good from the scouting report," Zeller said of Gaillard. "One of those dunks did surprise me unfortunately but he was a good player."
Three for One at McD’s
Early on, both teams were atrocious from the field, with William and Mary winning the intensity battle. With the rest of the Tar Heels caught in a funk, Leslie McDonald’s hot shooting kept the Heels from posting disastrous first half shooting numbers. With his teammates going 1-of-8 from the bonusphere, McDonald’s back-to-back threes with 4:14 left in the half stretched the Heels lead to 19, virtually eliminating the Tribe’s hopes. In the process, McDonald got the Carolina offense in gear after a rough start.
“As for my and my fellow teammates coming off the bench, we feel like we just need to bring it,” McDonald said of the jump start, “More pressure and more enthusiasm. We feel like we need to get the first team in gear by applying a little pressure and bringing life to the team.”
After McDonald cooled down, Strickland continued his aggressive play and it paid off both for his confidence and the team’s production.
“I’ve just been putting in the work,” Strickland said of his play over the past three games. “I know that hard work will pay off and I am just trying to help my team.”
“Finally he’s shooting - I am so glad that he’s shooting like that,” McDonald said of Strickland. “Now he’s really feeling like he has the opportunity to make big shots and it helps our team out.”
Armed with as much confidence he’s had since arriving on campus, Strickland has emerged as a much needed offensive weapon with his ability to attack the rim and get easy baskets in transition.
“I thought Saturday (against Texas) he was really good offensively,” Williams said of Strickland. “He made some good decisions with the ball and I thought it was the best he’s been all year. We looked at the tape and he wasn’t as good defensively so we’ve talked about doing it at both ends.”
(Bench) Help Needed
With the second of McDonald’s threes pushing the Carolina lead to 33-14, the Tar Heel bench had scored 19 of the 33 points. While the reserves cooled throughout the night, it was their play that got Carolina off the snide early.
“It was an unusual start to the game,” Williams said. “I didn’t think we had the enthusiasm I thought we would have and we made substitutions.
“In the second half, (that group) didn’t do as well, but I think that little stretch there in the first half - Leslie made a couple of threes and J-Watts (Justin Watts) made a three from the corner. I thought that was big for us.”
McDonald’s plan to ‘bring life to the team’ helped him finish the night with 14 points while Reggie Bullock added 11.
In what will surely continue to be one of the biggest discussions around the water coolers tonight and over the break, Larry Drew II and Kendall Marshall both finished with goose eggs in the scoring column, but Drew managed six assists and three turnovers while Marshall came off the bench with eight assists and no turnover in 16 minutes of action.
“We’ve been doing a better job with our turnovers recently and I think that was important for us tonight too,” Williams said of his guard play.
They’re Free - Take One (or Not)
For the season, the Heels are shooting 67 percent from the free throw line. Not terrible, but nowhere near great. And with a team that will seemingly fight for every point this season, getting the free ones is paramount for this team to make a run at the NCAA Tournament.
Against W&M, the Heels never faced the pressure of a tight game and managed just 7-for-12 in the first half. The Heels were better after the break, but still finished the game just 14-of-21 (matching their season average) from the line. Normally, one would read that stat line and not be too worried, but unlike most nights, with Henson’s injury, his struggles from the line can’t be blamed. Only Zeller shot better than 50 percent from the line on the night with Harrison Barnes missing all four of his attempts in the first half.
Williams has said in the past that he can’t or doesn’t like to coach effort, free throw shooting resides in the same boat as it is up to the players to get it corrected. If they don’t, sure wins will fade into crushing defeats down the road.