Short-handed Heels finally figure things out

December, 14, 2013
12/14/13
11:22
PM ET

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams refused to acknowledge it.

But he didn't have to.

The signs were all there in Carolina's 82-77 victory against No. 11 Kentucky.

The No. 18 Tar Heels have figured things out. They're no longer a team struggling in new roles because they were stretched outside of their collective comfort zones.

They've settled down now to the point where saying Carolina is playing short-handed even seems like a misnomer. P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald didn't dress for the ninth time this season, and it didn't seem to matter.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige, Dominique Hawkins
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeMarcus Paige has come a long way from his pass-first days as a freshman last season.
"I don't know if we've figured it out like we're clicking like no other right now, but guys do understand their roles better," sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. "We know that we're going to have to play without them until they're ruled eligible or whatever. We've just decided that this is our squad that we're rolling with for the time being."

The Heels have plenty of flaws. Paige is their only consistent 3-point shooter. They're atrocious from the free throw line. They haven't had anyone claim the center spot. But they have learned what their strengths are.

Paige is the face of the successful transitions. As a freshman last season, he was asked only to be a distributor at point guard. With Hairston out, he has moved to shooting guard and has become the Heels' leading scorer.

Early in the season, it wasn't natural for Paige to hunt for his own shot. It's safe to say he has learned now, scoring 21 of his game-high 23 points in the second half and shooting 6-of-8 from the floor.

One of his biggest baskets of the game came while going right at UK center Willie Cauley-Stein, who had five blocked shots. Paige completed a teardrop over the 7-footer's outstretched arm to give Carolina a 70-65 lead with 1 minute, 41 seconds left, which kept it at least a two-possession lead until 7 seconds remained.

"He made two unbelievable shots," Williams said. "That little floater on the baseline -- I'm always kiddingly harping on, I don't like floaters until you show me you can make them, and he's coming pretty doggone close."

Junior James Michael McAdoo is coming close to erasing worries at small forward. His transition from power forward to reserve duty at the 3 had made him pretty ineffective offensively. He had a four-game stretch in which he didn't reach double figures in scoring and shot just 29.2 percent from the floor.

McAdoo played arguably his best game of the season with 20 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. He has put up bigger numbers against lesser competition, but his performance caused Wildcats coach John Calipari to say, "McAdoo made a statement."

"Games like today are huge; it feels a lot better," McAdoo said. "If we would have won and I had zero points, zero rebounds, I'd still be happy, but as a human being I want to be able to contribute to the team."

McAdoo got the ball in positions where he could score. Over and over he'd take passes from the wing and aggressively drive to the basket. That led to fouls and was the reason he tied his season high with 19 free throw attempts.

UK forward James Young said McAdoo's offensive outburst took him a bit by surprise, given his recent struggles.

"In the second half, I played most, if not all, my minutes at the 3," McAdoo said. "To be able to log those minutes, it's definitely huge, not only personally, but for the team moving forward."

[+] EnlargeJ.P. Tokoto
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeJ.P. Tokoto has adapted well to playing more minutes and playing more as a shooting guard.
J.P. Tokoto teamed with McAdoo to carry the Heels in the first half, with 11 of his 15 points. Tokoto eased into playing more at shooting guard, which, along with McAdoo at small forward, has allowed the Heels to play a bigger lineup, usually with Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks rounding out the five.

"Guys are accepting the challenge of stepping up and producing when they get the chance," Paige said. "J.P.'s playing a lot more minutes this year as a starter, and he's really producing. It's cool to see our team grow and accept the fact that we're going to have to all step up as a group."

Williams was concerned about how Carolina would perform against the Wildcats after a lackluster practice Friday. It was just the second full practice of the week due to final exams changing players' schedules.

Passes floated to areas with no one waiting to receive them. Man-to-man defensive assignments were missed, and their focus was distant. It was the complete opposite of their practice before the Michigan State game.

Freshman guard Nate Britt attributed it to players coming off the mental fatigue of final exams.

"Coach might have been worried, because he felt like the intensity wasn't there," Britt said. "But I feel like the players, we were fine mentally coming into the game."

Isn't that a sign of a good team?

Williams still says the Tar Heels have a ways to go. But after beating their third ranked team this season -- and shooting a combined 55.1 percent in the second half of those three games -- he has to be flashing a Cheshire grin.

"We're such a young group, and sometimes an immature group," Williams said. "You don't want to get them too fat and happy."

C.L. Brown | email

College Basketball

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