Carolina basketball used to mean domination on the court, a collection of five intelligent players who could all rebound, run, pass and play like lightning — but right now, it just means grinding out a win, whatever way you can.
When the Tar Heels trailed by two points heading into the second half of Wednesday's 80-73 victory over Wake Forest, it sure looked like the wheels were in danger of coming off once again. Getting out-rebounded by a team with only one 6-foot-10 player is not a recipe for success for UNC, especially when most of the games the team does win is on the back of its frontcourt. Neither is shooting just 38.7 percent from the floor.
But then the second half came, and suddenly things just looked better. The common talking point about North Carolina this season is that it's a team that just needs to tap into its talent — how real that talent is has been up for debate after the up-and-down play of Caleb Love, RJ Davis, Day'Ron Sharpe and the other highly recruited first-years.
But in the second half, that talent materialized in a way it hasn't for a good portion of the season.
"Well, what we did is we got together in a circle and held hands and sang Kumbaya, that's what we did at halftime," head coach Roy Williams said. "(...) We had a lot to talk about at halftime. I think the second half warm-up is the most overrated thing in college basketball, except for timeouts, of course. But we talked about the mistakes that we've made, talked about challenging our big guys to get posted up lower to be more effective, be stronger."
Armando Bacot, UNC's most improved player from last year by a good margin and so-far team MVP, carried the offense early in the half, easily converting looks he was missing in the first 20 minutes. He scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half, all while making simple plays over undersized defenders.
"(Williams) was frustrated with the way we came out," Bacot said. "But honestly, it was coach (Hubert) Davis, he gave us a touching speech at halftime just telling us they shouldn't have to come in at the end of every first half and asking us why we're not playing with effort."
Sometimes, it's just a matter of execution. North Carolina, which is one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to turning the ball over, had nine in the first half, giving the Demon Deacons nine easy points. In the second half, UNC had just three, one of which came in the final 30 seconds after the win was already in hand.
Love, who had already played well in the first half, played his most complete game in a North Carolina uniform, scoring a career-high 20 points, including two dunks to seal the game, all while playing solid, physical defense.
Davis was a spark off the bench, scoring nine in the second half, and junior wing Leaky Black tallied six points, five assists and two steals in the same time.
"Like, the talent is there, everything is there, we have all the horses, that kind of thing," Black said. "But it doesn't mean anything if we're not playing hard or playing with a motor. So that's what we all were just trying to feed everyone, as soon as y'all want to wake up and play, the game will be ours. If you keep messing around, obviously these guys gonna hang around and be another game like last year."
North Carolina didn't play a perfect game in the second half by any means. For seemingly the umpteenth time, an opposing player in the middle of a shooting slump, this time in the form of Isaiah Mucius, lit up the Tar Heels from beyond the arc. UNC got dangerously close to relinquishing the lead with five-and-a-half minutes left. There are things to fix.
For now, winning winnable games is a good building block for a program that's a far ways away from being ranked. But the Tar Heels' future will depend on figuring out a way not to need a second half boost.
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