But the spotlight here isn’t going to be on the final eight minutes when a 4-10 team from the American East Conference closed on a 23-2 run for the final margin of 87-70. Instead, the focus will be on how the Tar Heels built that massive lead and the good that comes from their play.
The Heels played more with a mindset – see passion, effort and focus - that made their combustible coach a happier man than he was two nights ago.
Roy Williams wasn’t pleased with his team’s performance in a win over Rutgers on Monday, and when asked what areas his squad had improved since the season began on Nov. 9, the Hall of Famer didn’t offer much of a response. Wednesday’s post-game presser had more smiles despite that ugly stretch.
“What we have to do is we have to get to a point where we can play the way we did in the first 10 or 12 minutes of the second half and try to create that all the time,” Williams said. “We did some really nice things (during that stretch).”
While the Tar Heels still weren’t always a fluid, flawless bunch in opening up an 85-47 lead, they produced plenty of crowd-pleasing moments. More important is that many of those sequences had to be coach-pleasing as well. That signifies a positive step forward, even if the opposition wasn’t exactly a charter member of the ACC.
The bottom line is UNC needed a laugher, one where the players enjoyed playing, patted each other’s derrieres over and over, and where the fans left thinking about March 2010 instead of about the arrival of some kid named Barnes and March 2011. Last eight minutes notwithstanding, that is what occurred.
“The first 32 minutes was good, in my opinion,” said Larry Drew, who also acknowledged it was actually fun at times. “I thought everybody played hard and played smart, guys ran the lanes, we pushed the ball up the court, got it inside to the bigs. They got it inside where they wanted the ball and everything was falling for us good.”
Among the encouraging happenings, the first quality performance by freshman Leslie McDonald stands out. He entered the contest averaging 1.7 points and had made just 8 of 24 field goal attempts. No wonder Williams said McDonald had been playing as “tight as a banjo string.”
But he played with confidence the entire night and finished with nine points and no turnovers. His two jumpers midway through the second half were the most fluid sequences of the season for the Memphis native.
“He (Williams) just told me to be relaxed, play hard – hustle plays are always keys to the game,” McDonald said. “Being loose gives me way more (flexibility) in my game.”
John Henson teased the fans with a couple of steals leading to three break-away dunks and his length on defense. His game is growing, even if ever so slowly.
Ed Davis and Deon Thompson were solid, despite some issues not kicking the ball back out to the perimeter, but this game wasn’t as much about them as it was the other guys and the team. Davis’ early hustle play going after his blocked shot may have set a tone.
Drew (six assists, three turnovers) was more aggressive than he had been since perhaps his fantastic performance in a win over Michigan State nearly a month ago (except for that silly two-foot bounce pass to Thompson on the break).
Will Graves drained half of his six 3-point attempts and even walk-on Thomas Thornton played nearly the final two minutes of the half and was active defensively.
Some numbers weren’t impressive: 18 assists and 18 turnovers; a three-rebound advantage; Albany assisted on 19 of its 26 field goals; and, of course, that final run.
But you can’t expect miracle turnarounds for these Heels. It just isn’t going to happen. Take forward progress when it’s there, even if the opponent is Albany.