At halftime here on Saturday at Miami, North Carolina faced the specter of losing its second consecutive game, a dubious achievement the Tar Heels had avoided since back-to-back losses against Connecticut and Kentucky back in December. A defeat here at the sold-out Watsco Center also would’ve been UNC’s third loss in four games, a first this season.
It would not have been time to panic, not exactly. And yet it would not have boded well for a team that is attempting to rise along with the stakes and the time of year. February is not March, and we’re a long way, yet from the win-or-go home finality of the college basketball postseason. Still, at halftime against the Hurricanes, it felt like UNC was up against it for the first time this season.
It felt like the Tar Heels needed to answer a challenge, about their mettle or capabilities or maybe both; and that without the answer they sought — the one they provided, in time — they risked their season turning in a direction they’d rather avoid. And so crises avoided, for now. And perhaps for the foreseeable future, after UNC’s needed, tough-it-out, 75-72 victory on Saturday.
It was a victory that felt more like a survival, with the Tar Heels’ once-comfortable second-half lead whittled down to two points with 40 seconds left; with a sloppy UNC turnover from there on an out of bounds play, with the Tar Heels missing free throws and giving the Hurricanes a chance right up until time expired.
And then: an exhalation.
Even before all of that, it was hardly easy. The Tar Heels squandered a 12-point lead, trailed at halftime and a festive home crowd was at its loudest and most vibrant very early in the second half, with the Hurricanes trying to take control. And then came a quick 10-0 UNC run, and that sound road teams savor when they enter noisy and hostile buildings: silence.
A four-point deficit not long after halftime turned into a 10-point UNC lead with about 10 minutes remaining. From there it was another test of resolve for the Tar Heels, led by 25 points from RJ Davis, and a question: Could they hold on and avoid too much drama down the stretch? The answer: Well, no.
But the Tar Heels hung on.
Here are the takeaways from UNC’s victory:
The ending was ugly and the Tar Heels fortunate to hang on
All you need to know about the final minutes for UNC: It didn’t make a shot from the field during the final four minutes, seven seconds. And it missed several free throws. And the Tar Heels committed a turnover with about 40 seconds left that gave Miami a chance to tie.
Really, about everything and anything the Tar Heels could’ve done wrong late, they did. And yet they still managed to win.
UNC took no time to respond from the letdown against Clemson, BUT ...
If the Tar Heels’ performance in a loss against Clemson on Tuesday could be characterized as a post-Duke hangover (and that described it well), then how best to put their start here at Miami on Saturday?
Was it an awakening? A revitalization? A statement, of sorts? All of those things, yes.
It was, without question, exactly what UNC needed. The Tar Heels opened a 15-4 lead during the first four-plus minutes against Miami, prompting Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga to call a timeout. It was the exact opposite of UNC’s start on Tuesday, when it trailed 15-2. The good vibes continued for the Tar Heels, at least for a while, and they led 20-8.
But then came, well, the “but” of the whole thing.
After building that 12-point lead, the rest of the half belonged to Miami. The Hurricanes outscored UNC 33-20 during the final 12-and-a-half minutes before halftime. Part of it was that Miami increased the intensity and the defensive pressure. Open looks became fewer.
But part of it, too, could be attributed to the Tar Heels’ sloppiness and failure to execute. UNC during one stretch missed 17 of its 20 attempts from the field – and no team is capable of winning with that kind of percentage. Fortunately for UNC, its start was so good that it mitigated the cost of how it played throughout the majority of the first half.
Its halftime deficit was 41-40, but it could’ve been worse.
RJ Davis sees your tougher defenses and raises ... his game?
One of the emerging challenges over the past couple of weeks for UNC is how teams have chosen to defend RJ Davis, the Tar Heels’ senior guard and arguably the leading candidate for ACC Player of the Year honors. Davis is in the midst of a fantastic season – among the best of any guard in the nation.
And yet his limitations are his limitations, with his size, and teams have tried to get physical with him. Duke did its best to try to take him out of his game last week. Clemson was effective, too, in limiting Davis’ movement and making things more difficult on him. He still got his points in both – 22 against Clemson, 17 against Duke – but it was hard on him.
It was a little less so here on Saturday, especially during the first half. Sixteen of Davis’ 25 points came during the game’s first 20 minutes, as did four of his five 3-pointers. The scoring and shooting exhibition were more in line with what Davis has done throughout most of the season – not that Miami played him any softer than most teams have recently.
Davis still received plenty of defensive attention – so much that his backcourt mate, Elliot Cadeau, was among the prime beneficiaries.
Speaking of Cadeau: a breakout offensive performance
If Cadeau can score consistently, or at least provide the threat of making some outside shots more than once every couple games, it’s a game-changer for UNC. The freshman point guard, who reclassified and graduated high school a year early, has done a lot of things right for the Tar Heels.
Most things, really. He’s been the passer they expected. His vision is as advertised. His defense has come a ways since the start of the season. But scoring, and especially shooting, has been a weak point for him, and recently teams have been daring him to shoot.
Perhaps that changes some after what he did at Miami. Not only did Cadeau make his first 3-pointer since a Dec. 29 victory against Charleston Southern, but he also made two 3s in the same game for the first time all season. His 19 points were a career high, to go along with eight assists.