Despite not practicing in eight days, the Tar Heels (9-4) showed no signs of rust in silencing the pro-Rutgers crowd almost immediately.
Rutgers (9-3) responded to UNC's initial spurt with a 6-2 run to cut the deficit to 16-8, but that eight-point margin was as close as Mike Rice's club would get the rest of the evening. The Tar Heels increased their lead to 42-20 with a series of mini-runs – 8-0, 6-0 and 6-0 – before taking a 42-22 lead into halftime.
The Scarlet Knights quickly cut that advantage to 42-27 to open the second half, but North Carolina put the game away by answering with an 18-4 run to build a 60-31 lead.
Leslie McDonald led North Carolina with 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting (4-of-7 from 3-point range) and Justin Watts got into the act with 10 points. Tyler Zeller scored eight points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Harrison Barnes added nine points on 3-of-9 shooting. Jonathan Mitchell paced the Scarlet Knights with 20 points and five rebounds.
UNC connected on 46.8 percent of its field goal attempts (29-of-62) while holding Rutgers to 33.9 percent (20-of-59). The Tar Heels outrebounded their opponent, 46-31.
INSIDE THE GAME
Dex's Return Home
It appeared as though things were setting up perfectly for Dexter Strickland as he prepared to play in front of fans and family for his "homecoming" game against Rutgers on Tuesday night at the Garden. The Rahway, N.J. native was averaging 16.7 points over his last three games, including setting back-to-back career-highs with 18 points against Texas on Dec. 18 followed by a 19-point outing against William & Mary one week ago.
But Mother Nature did its best to ruin those well-intended plans over the weekend, dumping an avalanche of snow on the Northeast and preventing Strickland from rejoining his teammates for practice in Chapel Hill on Sunday.
The original plan was for UNC to assemble in New York on Sunday to practice, but the weather conditions pushed Roy Williams to change the itinerary and have all of his players return to Chapel Hill so that the team could travel north together. But Strickland never made it back to North Carolina, instead finding himself stuck inside his family's apartment while the snow piled up outside.
"It was horrible," Strickland said of the ordeal. "I literally couldn't go anywhere. I couldn't even go outside."
The sophomore guard met his teammates in New York City around 10 a.m. on Tuesday, and less than 12 hours later, he scored UNC's first basket by slicing through a pair of defenders in transition for a lay-up 30 seconds into the game.
Strickland finished with nine points on 3-of-6 shooting to go along with three rebounds, an assist and a steal. Solid, if unspectacular, but not quite the homecoming that some were expecting after his mid-December play.
"[Dexter] got off to a good start in the first half and made those two lay-ups," Williams said. "Dexter was good; he wasn't great. He's been playing really well. The last three games may have been three of the better games that he's played. I wouldn't put tonight's game in that same category, but again, he hasn't practiced in eight days."
Flipping the Defensive Tables
The Scarlet Knights entered Tuesday's contest with impressive defensive statistics, albeit having come against mostly less-than-formidable opponents. Rutgers ranked in the top-30 nationally in three key categories – field goal percentage defense (37.0, 16th), scoring defense (58.8, 24th) and blocked shots (5.4, 26th) – prior to tip-off, but the Tar Heels delivered a plethora of body blows to those rankings.
Seven different Tar Heels contributed two or more field goals in the first half alone, helping UNC to a 20-point halftime lead behind a 56.7 percent shooting display (17-of-30, 6-of-13 3-pointers).
North Carolina stole Rutgers' thunder on the defensive end, holding the Scarlet Knights to 30.0 percent shooting (9-of-30) on three assists while forcing eight turnovers before halftime.
For the game, UNC held Rutgers to 33.9 percent shooting (20-of-59) and forced 16 turnovers while only allowing 10 assists. Mitchell was effective from the floor (7-of-14), but the other four starters missed 21 of their 29 field goal attempts.
"At times our pressure was good, but at times I didn't think it was very good," Williams said. "But we came up with a couple of steals and came up with a couple of loose balls."
After a couple of poor second-half defensive showings against Long Beach State and Texas, the Tar Heels appear back on track in limiting their opponents' scoring opportunities.
"We've got to pride ourselves on defense because that's something we do really well," Henson said. "Even when you're not scoring, if you're playing defense, you can come out on top and that's what we want to do."
Seven different Tar Heels were credited with at least one steal against the Scarlet Knights.
McDonald Continues to Fuel UNC's 3-Point Success
The Tar Heels have been hit-or-miss from long range through 13 games this season, connecting on 33.3 percent of their attempts (59-of-177). But if you're looking for a talisman in predicting UNC's success on any given night, look no further than Leslie McDonald.
North Carolina's three-best shooting displays from long range this year have come against Hofstra (70.6 percent, 12-of-17), Long Beach State (47.8 percent, 11-of-23) and Rutgers (47.8 percent, 11-of-23). It's no coincidence that McDonald has been at his best in those three games as well, knocking down a combined 13-of-19 — 68.4 percent – of his 3-pointers.
"Just keeping my jumper prepared," McDonald replied when asked about the key to his success. "Just working hard in practice, coming to the gym a little bit early [and] working on my jumper from different spots on the floor."
The obvious twist behind Tuesday's performance is that while weather impeded the team's ability to practice as a unit, it actually increased the number of shot reps the players put up on an individual basis.
"We got a lot of shooting in with those guys on Sunday night," Williams said. "We had an extra shooting period yesterday and we came here and shot today. That's what I told the guys during the break – I didn't want anybody playing, but if you get an opportunity to get some shots up, you should go ahead and do that… When the ball goes in the basket, everything looks so much better."