CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Well, all the league’s coaches said the ACC would be more competitive this season. We didn’t quite believe them at the time, that being what coaches tend to say at the start of every season.
But Georgia Tech, expected to finish in the bottom tier of the conference standings, outplayed No. 7 North Carolina, expected to finish near the top of the conference standings, for most of the game on Saturday.
The Tar Heels tapped into a level of talent the Yellow Jackets just don’t have to finally emerge with an 86-78 win. Here are a few observations:
Carolina, which ranked 13th nationally in turnover percentage, according to Ken Pomeroy, was uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball, which helped contribute to its first-half deficit. The Tar Heels trailed at halftime for just the second time this season after Georgia Tech used seven turnovers to score eight points. With the Heels primarily playing two point guards in the lineup at all times, it's typically their post players who are the major turnover culprits. This time they were caused by the backcourt. Joel Berry II and Nate Britt combined for five in the first half. The difference in the game? The Heels committed just four turnovers in the second half.
The Yellow Jackets limited Carolina from running, especially after made baskets. It has been a staple under coach Roy Williams for his team to push the ball up the floor after made baskets, often scoring before the defense has time to get set. The Jackets used one player to pressure the inbounds pass after scoring, making Carolina pause just long enough before throwing it in so their defense was never caught by surprise. Berry scored in the second half after a Jackets made basket, but that was the only time a guard was able to go rim-to-rim immediately after a make.
Carolina senior center Joel James turned in his best performance of the season. James, starting for the sixth straight game while Kennedy Meeks is sidelined with a bruised knee, tied his career-high with 11 points and added five rebounds. His performance could not have come at a better time. With Brice Johnson in foul trouble, James was in for the critical run Carolina used to take the lead for good.
Georgia Tech guard Adam Smith, who entered the game shooting 43 percent from 3-point range, is one of the best pure shooters in college basketball. Carolina defenders seemed to forget that at times, but he quickly reminded them. Smith had his best game in three career trips to the Dean E. Smith Center -- twice with Georgia Tech and once with Virginia Tech -- scoring 20 points, including six 3-pointers.