CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 7 North Carolina closed its 86-78 win over Georgia Tech in the same manner in which it started the game, blistering the nets with an offensive display the Yellow Jackets were unable to match.
The Tar Heels scored on their first six possessions in building a 12-8 lead, a margin which increased to 15-10 with 14:34 to play in the first half. Five turnovers in UNC’s next six possessions allowed the Yellow Jackets to retake the lead at 17-15.
A blend of disruptive defense and timely shooting by its opponent forced the Tar Heels to play from behind for a 17:27 stretch that overlapped the halves. After playing primarily a one-possession game for the middle part of the second half, UNC’s offensive engine played up to its No. 1 ranking in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency over the final 6:03.
Trailing 67-65 at that point, the Tar Heels scored on their last 11 possessions, averaging 1.9 points per possession. UNC tallied 21 points during that closing run, getting points from six different players and converting 12 of their last 14 free throw attempts.
Senior forward Brice Johnson committed UNC’s final turnover – its 11th of the game – on a charge with 6:46 to play.
“I like guys that can finish games,” head coach Roy Williams said after the game. “I think we finished it by the way we handled the basketball and didn’t turn it over. I think we also finished it by the way we made some free throws.”
Eight times in 2014-15 UNC held leads in the second half of games in which it ultimately lost. The Tar Heels haven’t been immune from those struggles this season, dropping road games at Northern Iowa and Texas despite holding second-half leads, although they have consistently executed better in those situations.
“We want to be able to do all of the little things to help us finish,” Johnson said. “We did it today. That’s one thing we’ve been working on from the summer to the preseason to now. We’ve just got to keep playing hard. We know what we need to do. We work on late-game situations all of the time. We just have to go out there and perform.”
Sometimes it’s as simple as avoiding a late letdown or maintaining a certain level of play. Other times, such as Saturday, closing strong means elevating execution above the game’s norm. In between the quick start and efficient finish, UNC scored on 42.9 percent of its possessions (24-of-56), committing 11 turnovers during that stretch.
“The last couple of years we would go to our offense where we would try to kill the clock and we wouldn’t end up getting very many good shots,” senior guard Marcus Paige said. “Stopping the other team is important, but you’ve still got to be able to put points on the board, and I think that’s where we’ve struggled in the past. This team is a little bit more effective offensively, so when we go to those sets that try to kill the clock and we try to take our time and get good shots, we still get offense, so that’s the biggest thing.”
The Tar Heels acknowledged after a game a feeling that they were unable to shake the Yellow Jackets as the clock ticked down, at least until Paige found point guard Joel Berry for an open 3-pointer on the right wing and a 69-67 lead with 5:07 to play. On the ensuing Georgia Tech possessions, forward Isaiah Hicks forced a turnover and found Berry in transition for a traditional 3-point play on a drive to the basket.
UNC’s lead grew to 72-67 with 4:40 to play, and the Yellow Jackets were unable to get any closer than four points the rest of the game.
“We had been looking for something like that the entire second half,” Paige said. “… We broke it open with those two plays, and then we felt like, okay, this is our chance to put our foot on them and get a lead that we can keep.”
The Tar Heels shot 50.8 percent, including a 57.7 percent effort in the second half. That marks the 11th time in 15 games this season that UNC has shot better than 50 percent after halftime.