UNC scored 53 points in the second half of its 93-81 victory, which is more points than the Cavaliers are allowing per game this season (52.3). It was the first time all season that Virginia allowed more than 70 points in a game.
The Tar Heels shot 49.2 percent from the floor, including a 55.2 percent after halftime, and dished out 18 assists on 29 made field goals. North Carolina converted 13 of its 28 3-point attempts, including 7-of-11 over the final 20 minutes.
P.J. Hairston deserves a portion of the credit – the sophomore guard scored a career-high 29 points on 8-of-14 shooting (6-of-12 from 3) and grabbed seven rebounds – but his inclusion in the starting lineup was more significant for the position that he played.
The fan base and various media members wondered aloud during the first month of ACC play if UNC would be more effective offensively with Hairston in the starting lineup ahead of Dexter Strickland. As it turns out, the lineup is more effective with both players in the mix and Desmond Hubert on the bench.
Small ball is now thriving in Chapel Hill, and with it comes a suddenly confident team and a reenergized fan base.
While Hairston’s statistics deserve the headlines, Marcus Paige scored 17 points on 4-of-9 shooting and Strickland added 13 points, six assists and one turnover. Saturday represented only the second time all season both Paige and Strickland scored in double figures in the same game and their 30 combined points is a season high.
The improved spacing by inserting a player that can shoot from deep in place of a forward that hovers on the blocks has been glaring in the past two games since Williams made the switch.
Strickland’s response when he first saw the open lanes against Duke?
“I started drooling.”
Not only does the small lineup create more room for penetration, it also allows for a more free-flowing offense as players can slash across the lane without congestion, as well as giving James Michael McAdoo more room to work on the block.
“It helps us out a lot, Dexter and me specifically,” Paige told reporters following the game. “We have more chances to go off the bounce and create plays for ourselves and for other people with P.J. at the four because he stretches the defense so much. It just gives us more options on offense.”
Hairston’s performance, of course, commanded Virginia’s defensive attention and made life easier for his teammates.
“He’s a basketball player,” Paige said. “When he’s giving that kind of effort, we can play him at any position. He’s going to shoot the ball well, and when he’s attacking the boards and playing the defense he’s been playing lately, we don’t lose anything by playing him at the four.”
There’s been more to UNC’s play since Wednesday than just improved offensive play, however. There’s a renewed hope, a better sense of urgency from the Tar Heels.
“I think that lineup is putting a lot on the table, just allowing us to do more things,” Strickland said. “It’s allowing us to play faster, it’s allowing us on defense to be in our right spot and just allowing us to play our game in our comfort zone.”
Despite the loss at Duke, the first-half performance pushed Strickland and Reggie Bullock to corral their teammates on Friday. Their message – if UNC plays like it did in the first half against the Blue Devils, it’s going to be hard to beat.
“We realize what it’s doing,” Hairston said of the lineup, noting that it’s led this group to play more as a team.
There are still plenty of areas where UNC needs to improve with this new lineup.
Virginia shot 58.5 percent from the floor, including a 57.1 percent clip from three (12-of-21). And Williams told his players after a play when no one crashed the boards that he couldn’t continue with the lineup if they didn’t rebound. The Tar Heels responded by outrebounding the Cavaliers, 33-24.
If there is a reset button available during a college basketball season, Williams may have pressed it earlier this week.