CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- After feeding freshman Joel James for a late-game ally-oop that gave North Carolina a 29-point lead Friday night, redshirt junior Leslie McDonald grinned as he backpedaled to the other end of the court.
Defending, transitioning, dunking: This is what the 11th-ranked Tar Heels could look like if they can live up to their potential. But after trailing Division II Shaw by three points early in the second half of their eventual 81-54 exhibition victory, the question is: How long will it take the Tar Heels to consistently live up to that potential?
"Honestly, I feel like [the second half] is just a glimpse of what we can be," said sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo, who led UNC with 16 points and 8 rebounds at the Smith Center. "We’re so young, it’s crazy how young we are. ... Hopefully, in the next week or so we can really work out the kinks, because it’s going to be a battle once the season starts."
Early on, the Tar Heels showed who they are: a reconstructing team still trying to figure out its best lineups after losing four starters to the first round of the NBA draft; a squad still teaching its quartet of freshmen about pace and defense and intensity.
As expected, rookie point guard Marcus Paige got the start alongside McAdoo and junior wing Reggie Bullock. Joining them were senior shooting guard Dexter Strickland -- who played impressively quick and confident after reconstructive knee surgery just eight months ago -- and sophomore forward Desmond Hubert. Hubert got the nod, coach Roy Williams said, because he had been playing better than the other big-man options in practice.
UNC missed eight of its first 12 buckets and shot worse than 38 percent en route to a 37-33 halftime lead. And when scrappy Shaw used four consecutive field goals from forward Karron Johnson (17 points, 19 minutes) to open the second half with a 9-2 run, Williams said he didn’t really mind.
"I even liked it when they took the lead there, because those are the kinds of things that we’re going to face all year," Williams said. "I like the way our guys responded."
Because that’s when the Tar Heels showed who they could be when they speed and defend and jell.
Trailing 42-39, UNC shot, dunked and stopped its way to a 28-2 run before the Bears scored on a goaltend. It began with McAdoo performing his familiar steal-at-half-court-and-dunk-on-the-other-end move. It included eight straight points (including two 3-pointers) from sophomore P.J. Hairston.
Freshman forward Brice Johnson was active, picking up two rebounds, a steal, an assist and a dunk during that stretch. So was James, who might work his way into the starting lineup after working his 6-foot-10, 260-pound frame into a 13-point, 7-rebound outing.
"It was good for us to get in front of a crowd," Williams said of the freshmen. "We’ve been trying to do things in practice: We have station work, we have four-on-four group work. But now they got to put it into game action, and that’s what they did. ... Joel and Brice probably played better for their opening night than Marcus and J.P. [Tokoto, a freshman wing] did, but I liked what they did."
Paige finished with 6 points, 6 rebounds, 3 turnovers and an assist. All 12 of UNC’s scholarship players played at least seven minutes before the new group of walk-ons took the floor.
The Tar Heels open the season Nov. 9 versus Gardner-Webb.
"That second half is a great example of what our team is capable of doing," said McDonald, who finished with 12 points in his first game back after redshirting last season to rehab a torn anterior cruciate ligament. “Our intensity was high defensively, we got steals and dunks. That second half was us -- the Carolina way. ... And that’s what we’ve got to continue to do."
BRIEFLY: Strickland (6 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 turnover) said he’s not quite 100 percent but "probably 99 percent or 98 percent." ... UNC made only 3 of 16 3-pointers, and made only 14 of 26 free throw attempts. ... The Tar Heels travel to Georgetown to play in a closed scrimmage Sunday.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.