UNC (6-2) led Oakland 58-21 at halftime in its season opener on Nov. 8. Since then, however, the Tar Heels have been tied three times, trailed twice and led just once – by three over Richmond – at the break.
Following a confounding three-week stretch ripe with monumental upsets over top-five foes and head-scratching losses to mid-major squads, UNC was in desperate need of a scripted blowout that went according to plan. Both teams played their part on Saturday as the Tar Heels outmanned and outmuscled the Spartans (4-5).
Former UNC letterman Wes Miller’s squad was effective early in connecting on four of its first nine field goal attempts. The Tar Heels, however, opened their woodshed shortly thereafter and outscored the Spartans by 28 points over the final 12:06 of the half.
“First half, we were very active defensively,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference. “About as active as we’ve been at any time this year. I liked that part – the last 8:22 they didn’t score in the first half and that was really the basketball game.”
R.J. White’s jumper with 9:41 on the clock and Kyle Cain’s with 8:22 remaining were the lone field goals for the Spartans during that stretch. Tyrone added a free throw at the 5:30 mark.
UNC’s defensive intensity frazzled UNCG’s offensive rhythm while fueling its own transition scoring.
Over their final 24 possessions of the first half, the Spartans shot 16.7 percent (2-of-12) while committing 12 turnovers. UNC turned those turnovers into 18 points and a 54.5 percent (12-of-22) shooting display over the final 12 minutes.
“It was back-and-forth a little bit at the beginning, but then our defensive intensity and attention to what they were trying to do – they run the secondary break just like we do – we started taking away some of that, getting some run-outs and easy baskets and the momentum of that just carried on,” said sophomore guard Marcus Paige, who scored 12 points and dished out eight assists.
“Their pressure and their ability to get in the passing lanes just really shell-shocked us there in the first half, especially the last eight minutes,” Miller said. “I thought it really dismantled the things we were trying to do offensively. It led to some turnovers and they got some run-outs.”
UNC’s defensive approach was ironed out during a timeout. That conversation, according to sophomore forward J.P. Tokoto, went something like this: “They don’t get a shot.”
The offensive benefit of forcing turnovers is that players such as Tokoto (6 pts) and James Michael McAdoo (13 pts, 7 rebs) can thrive in transition much easier than in the halfcourt. With minimal perimeter shooting currently available to stretch opposing defenses, points scored on the break help to alleviate those concerns.
“As much as we can keep the pace in our favor and force turnovers, it takes a lot of pressure off our halfcourt offense, which has been inconsistent at times,” Paige said.
UNC’s 33-5 run included a 25-1 spurt to close the first half with a 44-14 lead.