The frigid cold that’s shrouded Atlanta since Tuesday provided an appropriate backdrop for UNC’s 30.8 percent shooting in the first half. The Tar Heels led 26-25 at the break despite taking 16 more attempts than the Yellow Jackets. UNC held an 8-2 advantage in second-chance points thanks to a 10-1 offensive rebounding edge.
The Tar Heels took a different approach after halftime, connecting on six of their first nine field goal attempts en route to a 66.7 percent shooting display. UNC knocked down 66.7 percent of its 3-pointers (4-of-6) and 80.0 percent of its free throws (16-of-20), including 11-of-12 in the final two minutes.
UNC head coach Roy Williams explained the difference in the halves offensively as primarily getting better looks at the basket.
“We were rushing it [in the first half],” Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference. “Daniel Miller’s a load inside and he blocked a couple of shots and everybody was shooting the ball inside a little bit quicker. On the perimeter, we were not getting the shots that we wanted because we weren’t patient.
“It’s one of the things we talked about at halftime was to take another second or three or four here to get a better shot.”
The Tar Heels met that request despite James Michael McAdoo (17 points) - their most effective scorer in recent weeks – playing just seven second-half minutes due to foul trouble. Kennedy Meeks and Leslie McDonald both spoke to the team’s ability to lock in on both ends of the floor to offset McAdoo’s absence.
After forcing passes into the post and rushing shots on the perimeter early, the Tar Heels settled down and worked within the offensive system balancing 16 points in the paint with 12 from beyond the arc after halftime.
UNC’s starting five combined to shoot 87.5 percent (14-of-16) over the final 20 minutes after connecting on 30.0 percent of its attempts (9-of-30) in the first half.
Starting guards Marcus Paige and McDonald combined to miss 12 of their first 15 field goal attempts, including six of their first seven treys, before converting 8-of-10 shots (4-of-5 3-pointers) after halftime.
Paige scored 17 of his team-high 19 points in the second half, continuing his trend of slow starts and furious finishes.
“I was more focused,” Paige said of his second-half exploits. “In the first half, I have a tendency to not come out as focused and as attentive as I am in the second half. The only thing I always think about is winning. The second half becomes crunch time and that’s when I have a tendency to play better.”
UNC more than doubled its points-per-possession average - .703 to 1.486 – from the first half to the second. Those statistics corresponded appropriately with the scoring outing differential (26 in 1H; 52 in 2H).
The Tar Heels shot 44.4 percent (38.5 percent from 3) for the game.
Arguably the biggest surprise of the second half came in the closing minutes as the Tar Heels knocked down free throw after free throw to thwart a late Georgia Tech rally. Four players combined to score 11 points on 12 tries in the final 1:36.
UNC’s 73.9 percent shooting from the free throw line (17-of-23) represents the team’s best effort in the ACC and second best of the season (76.5 percent vs. UNCW).