As if more proof was needed that North Carolina is a different team than it was earlier in the season, Monday’s victory over Florida State provided myriad examples.
Obviously there’s no way to prove it, but I believe the Tar Heels would have folded a month ago had they started off a game as sluggish as they did against Seminoles. Six points through the first 10 minutes of the game. Ian Miller bombing 3-pointers. Foul trouble up and down the roster. James Michael McAdoo couldn't work through it before fouling out scoreless.
McAdoo wasn’t the only one struggling. Marcus Paige and Leslie McDonald couldn’t make a shot. Joel James and Isaiah Hicks had moments when they looked totally overwhelmed. Neither played in the second half.
The Tar Heels looked exactly like the team that lost their first three games to start ACC play en route to a 1-4 record. Their 81-75 victory came because they transformed back into the team on a seven-game winning streak. It was the first game UNC won after trailing at halftime and their 15-point comeback was the largest deficit they've overcome this season.
What turned things around for the Heels? Unlike earlier in the season, they weren’t overly reliant on just Paige or McAdoo being the players who pulled them through. Nearly everyone who played at some point provided a key play that ignited the team:
Luke Davis, who hadn’t played in a game since Feb. 1 against NC State, held Miller scoreless for a four-minute span in the first half after he already had connected for 11 points.
Desmond Hubert, who hadn’t made a basket since the UNC Wilmington game on Dec. 31, dunked home a rebound to tie the score at 55.
All the little contributions helped, but the props go to Meeks and Brice Johnson for carrying the heavy load. They combined to help the Heels outscore the Seminoles 50-38 in points in the paint.
Meeks hadn’t reached double-figure scoring in five consecutive games. But his career-high 23 points on 11-of-12 shooting drew quite the favorable comparison. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Meeks was the first North Carolina player to score more than 20 points while shooting 90 percent from the field since Sean May shot 10-of-11 from the field for 26 points in the 2005 national championship victory over Illinois.
Johnson played an efficient 21 minutes, scoring 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting. He also grabbed 11 rebounds. It was only his second double-double of the season.
It was all enough to carry the Heels until Paige, who missed his first five 3-point attempts, warmed up. He scored 14 of his 20 points in the game’s final 9 minutes, 30 seconds and spearheaded the Tar Heels’ 67-percent shooting in the second half.
Carolina may or may not stretch its winning streak to eight on Thursday against Duke. But at least the Heels have shown that the right team will show up.