Heels Gut Out Gator Victory

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – The fatigue of three games in three days eventually showed on the faces and in the body language of the fifth-ranked Tar Heels on Friday, but not before holding off a late Florida charge to secure a second-straight win over a Top-25 opponent.

With 50.6 seconds to play and UNC holding a 69-62 lead, Florida forward Devin Robinson fouled out by fouling Marcus Paige in late desperation. As the game paused for the substation, UNC forward Kennedy Meeks (18 points, 13 rebounds) lined up for the free throw attempt across from the Tar Heel bench. His hands found the bottom edge of his Carolina blue shorts and his head dipped down, stealing the moment for a bit of rest.

The time for a breather would have to come after UNC’s 75-64 victory, though, as Roy Williams yelled at his team to huddle up. When Meeks stayed in position, bent over looking at the Imperial Arena floor, Williams clapped his hands, stomped his feet and screamed at his sophomore in an effort to gain his attention.

The physical toll of 60 minutes of game action in less than 60 hours against power conference competition often turns into a test of endurance. The Tar Heels shot just 32.0 percent after halftime, committed 19 turnovers and allowed 19 offensive rebounds, yet kept Florida at a double-digit distance for all but about five minutes.

“Sometimes you’ve got to grind it out,” Paige said. “That’s what I was saying after we came back in before the coaches came in. We didn’t exactly handle the pressure the way we wanted to. We didn’t get the shots we wanted to. We shot a low field goal percentage, but sometimes you have to grind it out. Both teams were tired and we switched our defenses up and did enough to get the win. I think that in itself is a positive for us.”

It was Florida that looked fatigue early. The Gators missed 14 of their first 15 3-point attempts, many hitting the front of the rim and two more charting as air balls. UNC jumped out to 12-0 and 20-4 leads and didn’t allow the Gators back within single digits until five minutes into the second half.

“We knew we had to come out with energy,” Tokoto said. “Everybody played three games, so we weren’t going to be able to use that as an excuse. Our depth really did help this game. Guys were tired. We got subs and guys came in and made big plays and played big minutes.”

Three times Florida cut UNC’s lead to eight points after halftime and three times the Tar Heels answered to push their lead back to 10 points.

With 2:00 to play, Michael Frazier drained a 3-pointer to pull the Gators within seven points. Paige knocked down a pair of free throws on the ensuing possession. Florida forward Chris Walker scored on an offensive rebound and a putback seconds later, and Paige once again responded with two from the charity stripe.

Despite struggling against Florida’s press and struggling to find an offensive rhythm, UNC made just enough plays on both ends to keep the Gators at a comfortable distance until the final horn sounded.

“When we come with the mindset that we’re going to outwork our opponents, then good things happen,” Paige said. “We may not be perfect, we may turn the ball over, we may not get great shots, but if we come with the mindset that we’re going to outwork our opponents like we did in the second and third games, then we’ll make things happen. We’re talented enough to make things happen.”

In his postgame press conference, Roy Williams acknowledged subbing Meeks out a couple of times and Paige and Tokoto once each because he thought they were winded. The 12th-year UNC head coach stressed, however, that his team’s depth played its part in Thursday’s win over UCLA in allowing his starters to start fast and fresh against the Gators, who had no such luxury.

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