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Long Beach State (5-6) jumped out to an early 15-9 lead after hitting seven of its first nine field goals, but UNC (7-3) responded midway through the first half with a 21-4 spurt that gave the Tar Heels a 44-29 cushion and ultimately a 48-34 advantage at the break.
The 49ers refused to go away, however, rallying with a methodical 31-16 second-half run to cut a 17-point North Carolina lead to 71-69 with 8:40 to play, conjuring memories of how Lipscomb whittled a 14-point second-half deficit to three points in UNC's season opener.
After trading baskets for roughly the next three minutes, the Tar Heels used a 8-0 spurt to allow for just enough breathing room down the stretch.
Harrison Barnes tied his career high in points (19) and set a new career high in rebounds (10) in leading North Carolina. Leslie McDonald set his career high with 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting (5-of-6 3-pointers), while Dexter Strickland and Larry Drew (eight assists, two turnovers) both added 13 points.
Forward T.J. Robinson delivered a monster game for the 49ers, scoring a career-high 31 points on 13-of-19 shooting (3-of-4 3-pointers) and grabbing seven rebounds. Casper Ware was just as effective with 22 points, 10 assists and four rebounds. Tristan Wilson added 16 points and seven rebounds.
North Carolina shot 56.2 percent (36-of-64, 11-of-23 3-pointers) from the floor, but allowed Long Beach State to knock down 50.7 percent (37-of-73, 10-of-31 3-pointers) of its shots. Despite a significant size advantage, the Tar Heels were outrebounded, 37-35, including a 12-7 49ers edge on the offensive glass.
INSIDE THE GAME
After allowing Illinois to connect on 50.8 percent of its field goal attempts (32-of-63) in the 79-67 loss on Nov. 30, the Tar Heels buckled their chinstraps and double-knotted their shoelaces on the defensive end of the floor in their next two outings. North Carolina held Kentucky to 38.7 percent shooting (30.0 percent in the second half) and then forced Evansville into a 31.7 percent showing on Wednesday.
But the wheels fell off the bus on Saturday in mind-boggling fashion. Long Beach State – otherwise known as The Beach – hit 11 of its first 17 buckets in building a 25-23 lead. North Carolina appeared to ward off the early explosion by clamping down on the 49ers and forcing them to miss 16 of their next 19 shots.
The Beach wasn't done, however, connecting on 57.5 percent (23-40) of its field goals over the final 20 minutes and change of regulation. Not bad for a team that entered this game shooting just 42.4 percent from the floor through 10 games.
Ten points came off 11 UNC turnovers, 15 more were the direct result of 12 offensive rebounds and Robinson and Ware seemed to take care of the rest, combining for 53 points on 21-of-33 shooting (6-of-10 on 3-pointers).
"I was disappointed in our defense," Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference. "We've been living off our defense for the last four or five games… In the second half, defensively we were not very good."
Strickland was at a loss for words when asked about the defensive lapse after the game.
"I don't know, I really don't know," Strickland said. "We just didn't bring it tonight."
Guards Spur First-Half Run
Twelve days ago, North Carolina's collective backcourt -- Larry Drew, Kendall Marshall, Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald – failed to show up in the opening 20 minutes against Illinois in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, missing on all seven of their combined shots and failing to score a single point.
But when North Carolina found itself trialing the 49ers, 25-23, midway through the first half on Saturday, it was that same group of guards that lit up the scoreboard by directing an impressive 21-4 spurt. During that eight-minute span, the backcourt scored 16 of UNC's 21 points, while wing Harrison Barnes added the other five points.
"We got good guard play today," Williams said.
Against Illinois, that quintet ended up with 22 points on 7-of-21 shooting and was also responsible for 14 of North Carolina's 18 turnovers. On Saturday, that same group of five accounted for 56 points on 21-of-30 shooting with a 17-5 assist/turnover ratio.
Drew continued his strong play of late down the stretch, scoring 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting in the second half, but more importantly, the junior point guard showed no signs of panic in directing UNC's offense when The Beach made its late run.
"He was really good today," Williams said. "Eight assists, two turnovers – you love that. You love the fact that he stepped up and made six out of seven [shots], and those were baskets that we needed."
McDonald Fuels 3-Point Barrage
The Tar Heels had struggled from long range all season long entering Saturday's contest, with the 12-of-17 shooting display against Hofstra serving as the lone exception. Scratch that showing and UNC was connecting on just 25.2 percent (26-of-103) of its 3-pointers.
The primary instigator in the burning-of-the-nets event against the Pride in Puerto Rico was Leslie McDonald, who knocked down a career-high four 3-pointers in six attempts. So it was no surprise that in the Tar Heels' second-best performance from 3-point range this season, McDonald was once again the ringleader.
North Carolina drilled nine of its 16 3-pointers in the first half against Long Beach State, led by McDonald's 5-of-6 mark. The sophomore guard was clearly feeling it against the 49ers, moving assertively into his spots around the arc and calling for the ball.
"Once the second one fell in, I knew the third one was going to be good and I knew the fourth one was going to be good," McDonald said. "I was just more focused on where my spots were on the court and how I was going to get open. My teammates helped me get open and I was just ready to knock them down."
McDonald added a standard two-point basket in the second half to set a new career high in points (17) to go along with three assists, two rebounds and a steal in 16 minutes of action.