UNC’s rotation includes four freshmen, a trio of sophomores that played reserves roles as rookies and a red-shirt junior that sat out the 2011-12 season due to injury. New roles have been assumed and other roles continue to play out, including leadership assertion and cementing the fifth starting spot in the post.
Considering that substantial checklist that Roy Williams was tasked with reducing to cross-outs, there was plenty to glean from the 480 minutes of game time through the first 12 games of the season. While various scenarios can be simulated during practice, there’s nothing quite like the real thing.
The pressure and intensity associated with a back-and-forth second half is likely at the top of that list.
North Carolina, until Saturday’s win over No. 20 UNLV, had not experienced a tight ball game down the stretch. The Tar Heels had either won big or lost big, creating late-game situations more notable for fans filing out of the arena than anything taking place on the court.
In UNC’s first seven games, the closest point differential with 10 minutes to play was 15 points. Texas’s eight-point lead at the midway point of the second half was the closest margin of any of UNC’s first 12 games.
The Tar Heels cut the Longhorns’ lead to four points with 7:48 to play before that margin increased to 10 points over the next three minutes. UNC sliced Butler’s 29-point second-half lead to just six points with 1:02 to play before the Bulldogs scored the final five points. Add in East Carolina creeping within four points on a pair of 3-pointers in the final 49 seconds and that represents UNC’s late-game theatrics.
On Saturday, however, the point differential stayed within seven points over the final 17:37 and included two lead changes, marking only the second game this season that the lead has switched hands after halftime. There were four such lead changes in UNC’s win at Long Beach State before the Tar Heels built a 14-point with 11:55 to play.
North Carolina and UNLV were engaged in a one-possession game for 6:29 of the final 15:45. In UNC’s first 12 contests, only 4:36 of a possible 240 second-half minutes were played in a one-possession game.
There was plenty for the Tar Heels to learn. UNC missed nine of its 21 free throws over the final 12:46, including a 3-of-8 stretch in the final 4:04 before P.J. Hairston sealed the victory with 28 seconds remaining by knocking down a pair of free throws.
The Tar Heels were effective in running out the shot clock on three consecutive possessions with under four to play, but forced shots each time due to starting the offense too late into the clock.
“It was a sort of survival thing at the end,” Williams told reporters following the game.
Making the win, and how UNC won, more impressive is how the team performed without junior wing and emerging leader Reggie Bullock.
Senior guard Dexter Strickland indicated that the less experienced players remained composed in the final minutes and stayed aggressive in attacking the basket in order to get to the free throw line.
“I think it’s great to have a game like that and to respond the way we did,” freshman point guard Marcus Paige said. “It’s great for us to have that kind of win heading into ACC play because it’s a dogfight every game in the conference. It’s going to be good to use this as a building block going into conference play.”
The learning experience was beneficial for even UNC’s most high-profile players.
“A lot of guys didn’t really play that much last year, especially in late-game situations, including myself – I didn’t play that much,” sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo said. “But I think it helps us build confidence and know that we can keep a lead and finish a team off.”
Saturday’s performance, of course, was just one part of a 13-game resume to date. When asked if he thought his players grew up on Saturday, Williams replied: “I’d like to think they grew up 100 times, but who knows.”
“They’re 17-, 18-, 19-year-old kids; who knows what they’re going to do tomorrow,” he continued. “We’ve [had] 47 practices and played 13 games and that’s the first time that we’ve really been able to feel really good about what we did.”
Winning a tightly-contested game against a top-20 program tends to have that effect.
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