The North Carolina Tar Heels showed why they are deserving of an NCAA Tournament bid by docking the Virginia Cavaliers, who were 8-3 in ACC play coming into the game. Tony Bennett’s squad had the fourth-best defensive rating in the country, but Virginia’s elite defense was picked apart by UNC right from the start. The high-scoring game finished off at 93-81, thanks to a ridiculously good offensive performance in the second half from the Tar Heels (53 points).
UNC’s P.J. Hairston has been the star of the team over the last few games, and fans and writers alike were clamoring for Hairston to be entrenched as a starter. Roy Williams finally took notice, and thus Hairston played in a career-high 29 minutes and scored one point for each minute he played in. It was an incredible game for Hairston, and I bet he’ll be shattering that career-high soon.
Hairston shot 6-12 from downtown, connected on 7-8 free throws, and shot 57.1% overall. He also added seven rebounds in a turnover-free ball game, and UNC’s offensive efficiency was off the charts. Part of that is thanks to a 49.2 FG% (46.4% from three), but the other part of that goes to just seven turnovers committed in a high-pace game. The Tar Heels only had two players (James Michael McAdoo had three and Marcus Paige two) with multiple turnovers, and North Carolina averaged a terrific 1.33 points per possession.
Marcus Paige’s performance stood out to me, because he drained all three of his shots from the charity stripe and also had a 3-5 line from downtown. For the game, Paige put up 17 points, four rebounds, three assists, and two steals, and he continues to improve with each and every game in his freshman season.
Reggie Bullock wasn’t his usual efficient self on paper (3-8), but one has to be mindful of the fact that seven of those attempts were from three (all of his made shots were three-pointers), thus giving him a solid 42.9% shooting clip from deep. Bullock filled up the stat sheet with an incredible four steals (also one block), four assists, and three rebounds. He is the leader of this team, and Bullock showed it by playing great defense in an offensive game and dishing out assists for the rest of his Tar Heel teammates.
James Michael McAdoo was one point away (nine) from having a double-double after bringing down ten rebounds, and you can blame his 1-4 shooting from the free throw line for that narrow miss.
Virginia seemed to make everything in sight with a 58.5% field goal clip, and they made 57.1% of their treys. Every shot seemed to fall for the Cavaliers, and it looked like they were chucking up anything in the first half because they knew it would fall (around 62% shooting in the first 20 minutes). Virginia played a great, efficient offensive game, but they were uncharacteristically lax on defense. I honestly think they were caught off guard by UNC’s high-paced attack.
I think this is the game where UNC officially showed that they have turned the corner, and I think their approach now is going to be more focused on speed, ball movement, and taking advantage of their finesse players instead of complaining about how they don’t have a traditional, bruising big man to dominate the low post. This team has plenty of talent, and they are finally clicking. Meanwhile, their rivals in Durham are slipping and are no longer the best team in the ACC; that title belongs to the stalwart Miami Hurricanes.
I just want to finish off by tipping my figurative cap off to Virginia’s Joe Harris, who continues to have a great season. Harris was the model of efficiency, knocking down 10-13 shots (4-6 from three) for 27 points. You could say Harris carried the Cavaliers on his back offensively, because only one other player (12 points from Jontel Evans) had double-digit scoring. Evans did well to put up 12 on 5-7 shooting, but he also had an atrocious six turnovers.
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.