Closing Strong

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – North Carolina lost its first three road games against power conference opponents by an average of 17 points. The Tar Heels reversed that trend on Saturday by making critical plays in the final minutes to secure a gritty 77-72 victory over Florida State.

In losses at Indiana and Texas, North Carolina started the second half in deep holes that were too difficult to dig out from. In Sunday's loss at Virginia, UNC led by eight points early in the second half before being outplayed and outscored 33-16 over the final 16 minutes.

On Saturday, Florida State rallied from a five-point deficit with 19:35 to play to take a four-point lead roughly nine minutes later. Instead of faltering after that nine-point turnaround, however, the Tar Heels stood up to the challenge. P.J. Hairston quieted the crowd with a deep 3-pointer on UNC's next possession. It was a shot fired out of confidence, not desperation.

FSU managed to keep a hold on the momentum for several minutes longer, increasing its lead back to 63-59 with 7:37 to play. As the game progressed, though, North Carolina was able to counter each Seminole basket with more frequency while the home team began to stumble.

Over the final 7:37, UNC scored three baskets off offensive rebounds by three different players and earned assists on two others. Hairston, who scored a career-high 23 points, drove from the left wing and delivered a powerful one-handed dunk with 3:53 to play to cut UNC's deficit to one and then extended his team's advantage to three points two possessions later on a clutch jumper from 20 feet.

Florida State scored its last field goal with 4:46 to play, adding its final two points on a pair of Okaro White free throws with 4:16 remaining.

North Carolina earned its first hard-fought victory of the season two weeks ago against UNLV. The Tar Heels did it on the road for the first time on Saturday.

"I thought they executed extremely well and were patient," Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton told reporters during his postgame press conference. "They got what they wanted… We made some mistakes down the stretch and didn't have enough time to overcome it."

The message from the UNC locker room was consistent from Williams to his players, highlighting effort, poise, toughness and a host of other descriptive words that fall into the same category – want-to.

Williams: "Today was the first time that I really thought that we did have a big-time sense of urgency."

Hairston: "We came out and played hard for 40 minutes instead of playing for one half. We played as a team the entire game, which is what we've been focusing on the whole season."

Reggie Bullock: "We were the mentally tougher team, definitely, in this game coming down the stretch. We made some great plays and had some great steals… We just came together. It wasn't just one player out there trying to do it himself."

Making Saturday's performance even more impressive was the heavy albatross of being only the fourth UNC team in school history to start the ACC season with an 0-2 record, not to mention the ghost of last season's 33-point massacre in this same building.

"I think our kids needed this, to say the least," Williams said. "We've been struggling. The pressure has been on. The stress of being at North Carolina and starting out 0-2 for a young team is incredibly tough to handle, much less a veteran team. And this is not a veteran team."

After three games in seven days, North Carolina will get a week of rest before Maryland arrives in Chapel Hill next Saturday. The Tar Heels are hopeful that this win over Florida State will serve as the same springboard that last season's loss provided for that team.

"It shows what we're capable of from a toughness perspective," Jackson Simmons said. "We see it every day in practice. This team is tough; we're not soft. The thing is that we just have to keep building and take the toughness that we had today and transfer it to the next practice and to the next game. Because when you can transfer it over on a consistent basis, that's when something special takes place."

Follow IC on Twitter @InsideCarolina.
Like IC on Facebook InsideCarolina.

Inside Carolina Top Stories