CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- At the end of Saturday’s first half, North Carolina’s Reggie Bullock paused near midcourt, waving his hands above his head to incite more cheers from the raucous crowd before running into the tunnel.
By the end of his team’s 62-52 win against Maryland, however, he looked content to grab the final rebound, shake hands and escape.
“Consistency for both halves of the game,” the junior said after scoring a career-high 24 points -- including 21 in the first half. “That’s what we need.”
And sooner rather than later.
In dominating Maryland for the first 20 minutes -- shooting 48.4 percent, holding the Terps to a third of their shots, helping to force 15 turnovers en route to a 42-20 advantage -- UNC showed what it has the potential to be: a defensively active team that can keep a 7-foot-1 big man (Alex Len, who scored 4 of his 10 points before the break) from being much of a factor. An unselfish offensive team willing to move the ball until it finds the hot hands (in this case, those of Bullock, as well as forward James Michael McAdoo, who scored 11 of his 19 points before halftime).
“It was pretty in the first half -- it looked like North Carolina basketball,” coach Roy Williams said after the win.
But during its lackluster final 20 minutes -- when the Terps outscored the Tar Heels 32-20 and cut a once-23-point lead to 10 -- UNC showed it still has the potential to go the other way. A team that looks sluggish on rotations, can be inconsistent on defense (Maryland shot 46.2 percent in the second half) and struggles for points (Bullock was 1-for-6 after the break, McAdoo 3-for-9).
“Right now, I’m about as ticked off about the second half as I can be,” Williams said.
Can you blame him, considering he got another teasing taste of what the team could be?
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, whose squad was coming off an upset victory against No. 14 NC State, called UNC “a hungry team” with “a hungry crowd.”
“It was a team that needed a win, and they played like it,” he added.
Indeed, while the Terps opened the game with one missed shot and five turnovers, UNC was building an 8-0 lead, all on points from Bullock.
After winning at Florida State last Saturday to push their record to a still-precarious 1-2 in ACC play, the message among Tar Heels players and coaches in their open week was one of controlled urgency: know your role, focus on defense, play as a team.
By doing all of those things, Bullock had outscored Maryland by halftime, 21-20, all by himself.
“[He played] bananas,” McAdoo said. “The crowd’s just like, ‘Go for 40.’ That’s what I kept telling him: ‘Drop 40 on them, Reg.’ He just played great, and none of it was selfish. It was all in our system, and that’s Carolina basketball.”
But what happened in the second half wasn’t, exactly. The energy that oozed at the beginning of the game sort of trickled instead. UNC’s defense got sloppy. Some players started going more one-on-one on offense, resulting in forced (and missed) shots.
Thus, after the Tar Heels pushed their lead to 44-21 on a Marcus Paige bucket, Bullock -- and most other Tar Heels -- struggled to connect as Maryland started to chip away. The junior didn’t make another field goal until the 5:50 mark, when a timely 3-pointer from the top of the arc pushed his team’s lead back to 17, and reset his single-game scoring mark.
You could see Bullock exhale as he backpedaled after the shot. Although Maryland (which got 21 points from Dez Wells) never cut it to within single digits, it wasn't the type of finish Bullock or any of his teammates would have preferred
“We came out flat in the second half; we weren’t showing the same sense of urgency,” Bullock said. “[If] we play consistently, play like we did in the first half for 40 minutes … we can be one of the top teams in the country.”
Perhaps. But they have to do it to prove it.
“We don't feel good about the way we played in the second half,” Williams said, “but the first half we were pretty doggone good.”