CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina senior Dexter Strickland has witnessed coach Roy Williams’ jacket-shedding, clipboard-spiking, marker-obliterating sideline meltdowns before. But, he said, he just didn’t know it was going to happen this time.
With 13 minutes, 16 seconds left Saturday at the Smith Center, Williams got livid when the combo guard -- making his first start at point guard for injured freshman Marcus Paige -- failed to pick up UAB ball handler Terence Jones and the Tar Heels’ defense failed once again, allowing Jones to bury a 3-pointer to cut UNC’s lead to seven points.
Strickland and his teammates responded well, using the fire lit under them to attack the basket, swish 3-pointers and shoot a sizzling 71.9 percent in the second half en route to a 102-84 victory.
But it was another sign that the 14th-ranked Tar Heels, which will likely fall out of the polls Monday after being blown out by No. 1 Indiana earlier this week, are still a work in progress.
"If I say pick up the other team’s point guard at the 10-second line, that’s what I mean," Williams said. “It’s an easy deal. If I tell my 3-year-old grandson to pick that cup up, my guess is he’ll probably pick it up. And that’s all the crap it is -- do what I tell you to do. And besides, I was really hot."
He was joking about the temperature. But he was rather heated in other ways.
This wasn’t supposed to be a tough test for a team whose intestinal fortitude was questioned after falling behind by as many as 29 points during a loss to Butler a week ago then getting smashed by the Hoosiers on Tuesday night. But the Tar Heels made it one.
It didn’t help that Paige jammed his left shoulder in practice Friday, limiting him to sitting on the bench in his uniform, or that UAB was so familiar with UNC’s offense, because first-year coach Jerod Haase spent the previous nine seasons as a Tar Heels assistant.
But it didn’t excuse the fact that UNC was so discombobulated early, allowing the Blazers to come back seemingly every time the Tar Heels got a bit of a cushion. UNC took a 35-21 lead with 2:01 left in the first half, for instance, only watch UAB whittle it down with an 8-0 run end the half and a 4-0 run to open the second half, cutting the advantage to 35-33.
"I can’t make any excuses," Strickland said. "We just have to do better and work as a team. All five guys have to get back and play good team basketball."
The Tar Heels made up for their defensive lapses with offensive cohesion in the second half. Forward James Michael McAdoo (15 points, 12 rebounds) started working the lane; Strickland (11 points, career-high nine assists) -- particularly after Williams’ jacket toss -- started attacking the basket; guard P.J. Hairston (16 points), who was 0-for-5 in the first half, started connecting.
But most impressive was junior Leslie McDonald, who scored 18 of his career-high 24 points after the break.
"In my head, honestly, I couldn’t miss," said McDonald, who finished 7-for-11 overall and 5-for-8 from 3-point land. "Every shot I thought was going in."
Forward Jordan Swing led UAB with 21 points as his team shot 47.7 percent in the second half. The Tar Heels countered with a 23-for-32 second half that marked their highest shooting percentage in a half since making 73.5 percent of their shots versus Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2008.
In many ways, and despite his "wacko" moment, Williams said he was pleased with the way his team responded to its 24-point loss to Indiana.
"Except for the defensive end of the floor," he said. "The fans are even wondering why they’re getting six shots, that kind of stuff. We’ve got to get better."
Or else Strickland & Co. may just see that jacket fly a bit more.
"I did not see it coming," Strickland said about his coach's meltdown, "but I’ve seen it before. I definitely saw it my freshman year when we had that horrible season.
"We definitely have to do better as a team as far as -- he gets mad at the little mistakes we go over in practice, and when he has to repeat himself, that’s when he’s at his [angriest]. We’ve just got to get better as a team, get back on defense, just do a better job overall."