North Carolina weathered Bartow Arena's largest crowd of the season – 8,889 – in taking an early 12-6 advantage. The Blazers kept it close for the duration, but ultimately only led for four minutes and 45 seconds with two points serving as their largest margin.
The two programs entered halftime even at 25, but each squad utilized a second-half run in trying to gain control late in the game. UNC's 13-4 spurt built a 45-38 lead with 10:43 remaining, and UAB promptly answered with a 9-2 run to knot the score at 47.
The Tar Heels slowly pulled away down the stretch, needing a Larry Drew seam-splitting drive and layup as the shot clock wound down to notch a 54-49 advantage with 43 seconds remaining. After a Dexter Fields' layup on the other end, UNC's sophomore point guard (11 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists) connected on two free throws to push the lead back to five with 21 seconds left to play. Dexter Strickland and Marcus Ginyard combined for four more free throws to secure the North Carolina victory.
Deon Thompson notched his first double-double in four months with 14 points and 12 rebounds, and Johns Henson added 14 points. Elijah Millsap (18 points) and Jamarr Sanders (17 points) accounted for 64 percent of UAB's scoring.
North Carolina connected on 41.5 percent (22-of-53) of its field goal attempts, while UAB shot 28.8 percent (15-of-52). UNC outrebounded the Blazers, 40-38.
The Tar Heels will travel to New York to face Rhode Island in the NIT semifinals next Tuesday at 9:15pm (ESPN2).
INSIDE THE GAME
Elijah Millsap earned his All-Conference USA first-team honors by showing out against the best competition on UAB's schedule. In five previous games against power conference opponents this season, the junior guard averaged 22.4 points on 56.4 percent shooting (44-of-78). The Grambling, La. native scored a career-high 27 points against Virginia on Dec. 30, and then equaled that mark against N.C. State last Saturday.
But Millsap has been plagued with inconsistency on the scoreboard, pairing 10 games of 20 points or more with seven games of 10 points or less.
Through the first 20 minutes of action on Tuesday, it appeared as though North Carolina would add an eighth game to that latter mark, holding the 6-foot-6, 210-pounder to three points on 1-of-3 shooting. The Tar Heels blitzed the junior guard with an array of defenders, ranging from 6-foot-6, 240-pound Will Graves to 6-foot-10 John Henson.
"Try to stop him from getting to the basket," UNC head coach Roy Williams said of his squad's defensive strategy against Millsap. "He's a driver. He made two outside shots and he doesn't usually make those because he's so good at getting the ball to the basket that he doesn't have to do that. Marcus [Ginyard] had him some, but Deon had him a few times, too… When he's the 4-man, it's a tough matchup."
The second half was a different story, at least initially. Millsap used his quickness in getting past his defenders on the perimeter, slashing to the basket and creating open looks early and often, scoring the Blazers' first 13 points after intermission on 5-of-6 shooting.
But after hitting a pair of free throws to tie the score at 38-38 with 13:59 left to play, Millsap would only attempt four field goals for the remainder of the contest, scoring on a garbage putback with 13 seconds left to cut UAB's deficit to five points.
The junior finished with 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting and seven rebounds.
After committing 19 or more turnovers in four of the first five games of the season, North Carolina slowly cut down on their mental gaffes as the year rolled along, committing 14 or fewer turnovers in six of its last eight contests.
But on Tuesday night, the Tar Heels reverted back to their old ways in the opening 20 minutes and allowed UAB to keep this game closer than it ever should have been. The Blazers capitalized on 10 UNC first-half turnovers to outscore their opponents 11-0 in the "points off turnovers" category.
North Carolina reversed that trend after halftime, committing just four turnovers while forcing UAB to cough the ball up eight times. The result was a 7-4 points off turnovers advantage for UNC.
"They were pressuring more in the second half, but if you average four turnovers a half, that's eight for a game – I'm good at math," Williams said. "That's the kind of play that you have to have."
But a closer look reveals that UNC could have possibly put UAB away earlier in the second half had it been more careful with the ball during one particular stretch. When Dexter Strickland converted a layup to push his squad out front, 45-38, the Tar Heels failed to take advantage of the moment and committed four turnovers in their next six possessions.
UNC Utilizes its Size Advantage
Despite a lack of height up front – only two regular starters are 6-foot-6 or taller – the Blazers have overcome that deficiency post the third-best rebounding margin in C-USA (plus-5.1). UAB head coach Mike Davis attempted to withstand UNC's size by inserting reserve 6-foot-10 center Kenneth Cooper into the starting lineup.
North Carolina countered with its rotation of four post players standing 6-foot-9 or taller, including 7-foot Tyler Zeller (5 rebs), who was "50-50" to play after suffered a mild concussion and needing five stitches after taking an elbow at Mississippi State on Saturday.
"'Z' had some breaks that didn't go his way," Williams. "… It wasn't a smooth day for him, but he was really good on the backboards for us."
The Tar Heels overcame their first-half turnover issues with a dominant performance on the glass, pulling down 27 rebounds to UAB's 16. The Blazers responded early in the second half, but ultimately wore down as the game continued. Cooper was visibly tired, logging 27 minutes after averaging just 18.4 on the season.
"We got anxious and took quick shots and held the ball on one side too much, and they're so long that if you do that for five or six seconds, then what happens is that you don't get a shot off or you end up taking a tough shot," Davis said.
After Dexter Fields drained a 3-pointer with 10:21 remaining, UAB would not convert another field goal opportunity until Fields hit a layup with 28 seconds left on the clock.