CHAPEL HILL – For the past 35 years, North Carolina’s basketball program won 919 games for an average of 26.3 victories per season.
For the past 90 days, UNC won just six games for an average of just two wins per month. For a day the Heels can feel like their old selves.
Adam Boone scored 28 points and Kris Lang and Jason Capel added 21 and 20 respectively as the Tar Heels avenged an earlier loss to Florida State and defeated the Seminoles, 95-85, before a crowd of 17,055 at the Dean E. Smith Center.
“I’ll tell you, Adam Boone had a special night,” said Tar Heels head coach Matt Doherty. “I really admire him coming back after some tough plays down the stretch – he put us in position to win (at Virginia on Tuesday) but made a couple of mistakes. He came out and had an awesome game tonight.”
“Adam Boone has continued to get better,” said Capel, who also had eight rebounds and four assists. “He did a terrific job out there tonight. He helped make things more open for us, that is why our (spacing) was better.”
Rarely do UNC’s fans get excited over a win against a football school, but when a program has gone from reaching the Final Four 13 times since 1967 – six times since 1991 – to being the laughingstock of college basketball, any win regardless of the opponent is reason to cheer. Especially with an efficient performance.
“Oh it feels great, it really feels great,” freshman guard Melvin Scott (13 points, two assists) said about notching the rare victory. “We have worked so hard and to see some results on the scoreboard is great.”
The Tar Heels (7-16, 3-10 Atlantic Coast Conference) did it with precision-like offensive execution down the stretch. Both teams traded baskets for much of the second half as both clubs quickly answered mini runs.
“We’ve not run a lot of set plays (recently) but we did do some things out of bounds that got us some baskets,” said Doherty. “I thought ‘If we could steal a few baskets here and there from sneaking in a set play that would be great.’ I thought we scored on a couple of out of bounds plays, Melvin’s (Scott) 3 from the top of the key and then a couple of plays where Kris got the ball and the and one.
“But besides that, they were on their own. They made basketball plays and it was fun to watch.”
UNC shot 50 percent (10-20) from 3-point range for the game and 55.4% (31-56) from the field.
FSU took a 69-68 lead on an Antwuan Dixon 3-pointer with 7:05 left in the game but the Tar Heels quickly re-took the lead on a Capel 3 from the top of the key. A Lang free throw and Boone trey off a kickout pass from Lang (career high four assists) gave the Heels a 75-69 lead with 5:19 left.
At that point, the teams traded baskets with UNC’s lead fluctuating from four to six points until Lang converted a traditional three-point play that gave UNC an 86-79 lead with 2:20 left.
On the play, Lang powered a soft four-footer and drew the fifth foul on FSU’s giant 6-foot-10, 333-pound junior center Nigel Dixon.
“Plain and simple. Nothing fancy about it,” Lang said about going at Dixon, trying to draw his fifth foul. “Just get the ball and go to the hole. (I knew) I’d either make the shot or miss the shot and get the foul. Something good was gonna happen.”
Three Boone free throws gave the Heels a 10-point margin and UNC knocked down eight of its final 12 attempts from the charity stripe to seal the deal.
“I think a big key (was) taking care of the ball,” Boone said about UNC’s success offensively in the second half. “We didn’t turn it over early in the shot clock and when you do that and you have an inside presence like Kris and they were collapsing on him and giving us a lot of open looks and I think those two things were probably the biggest keys.”
UNC committed just 13 turnovers to go against 22 assists.
North Carolina native Monte Cummings led FSU (10-13, 3-9) with 28 points. Antwuan Dixon added 14 and Michael Joiner, Nigel Dixon and Delvon Arrington each chipped in 12 points.
Prior to the game, 15 former UNC players, including Bill Bunting, Al Wood, Mike Pepper and Kevin Madden, met with the team to show encouragement and support for the struggling “Carolina family.”
Wood, an ordained minister who graduated in 1981, spoke to the team, telling them a story about strength through difficult times. Mike Cooke, a member of former UNC coach Dean Smith’s early teams and a 1964 graduate, also spoke to the team about perseverance and sticking together.
“It feels great (to have player come back), it feels great,” Capel said. “We get the letters and stuff like that. But for those guys to be here to tell us they believe in us and to keep our heads up and how much they are always thinking of us and what it is to be a part of Carolina basketball that makes everything worthwhile.”
After falling behind 7-4, the Tar Heels rolled off seven unanswered points to take an 11-7 lead on an Adam Boone 3-pointer 3:40 into the game.
The Seminoles, however, fought back to tie the game at 15 on a pair of free throws by Cummings with 13:54 left in the half. But UNC bolted to a 10-2 spurt aided by tenacious defense and opportunistic offense – and scoring contributions from Lang, Scott, Will Johnson and Brian Bersticker.
The Heels, however, then fell apart on both ends.
FSU went to a zone defense and just as Carolina’s struggles began on offense, slow feet became an issue on defense.
FSU sliced through UNC’s defenders for too many easy looks and if a Seminole didn’t convert immediately, another did after an offensive rebound. FSU had eight offensive boards in the first half.
“I don’t know for sure,” Boone said when asked about the sluggish stretch. “I think you have to credit them for playing well and doing the right things. But at the same time, we need to go at it 100 percent all of the time.”
FSU built a six-point margin at 40-34 on a 3-pointer by Antwuan Dixon with 2:52 left before intermission. FSU led at the half, 43-40.
But this was a night for rare celebration in Chapel Hill. The Heels won at home for the first time in 49 days and with Ohio University visiting on Wednesday, UNC has a chance to close the season on a positive note.
“It’s been a hard season as a team and it’s been rough,” Capel said. “But we have a great group of guys we are continuing to work hard. Our season’s not over. We can still make some things happen if we get momentum going heading into the (ACC) Tournament and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He is also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.