CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina finally gave a reason to believe what you see.
This unlikely bunch of Tar Heels became the first team in history to beat the Associated Press preseason No. 1 (Kentucky), No. 2 (Michigan State), No. 3 (Louisville) and No. 4 (Duke) with their 74-66 win over the Blue Devils on Thursday.
Their previous wins all gave way to inconsistent play. But Thursday’s victory is the one that can be trusted.
“After the Michigan State game, we were so high we felt like no one could knock us off our horse,” forward J.P. Tokoto said. “I mean, they were the No. 1 team in the country and we went into their place. It’s hard not to think that you’re unbeatable. But you can’t do that. We learned, learned from our mistakes.”
Make no mistake now, this imperfect group of Tar Heels are one of the hottest teams in the country after winning their eighth straight.
Their free throw shooting percentage is nearing historic lows in school history. They are limited from outside the arc. They’re not being carried, as Carolina teams in the past, by a bona-fide NBA draft lottery pick. But they’ve figured things out now.
“No one’s out there realizing that ‘All right, I’ve got to score 20 a night.’ Nobody on our team has to do that, we’ve just got to play together,” forward James Michael McAdoo said. “People are seeing that in the different games where if someone doesn’t play well, everyone else just steps up.”
It hasn’t been like that all season that’s why the Tar Heels had the wildly inconsistent swings.
They lost to Belmont at home. Then they beat Louisville on a neutral floor. They lost at UAB. Then they go out and beat Michigan State and Kentucky. They lost to Wake Forest and Miami en route to a 0-3 start in ACC play.
Now they’ve reeled off eight wins for the first time since winning nine straight in the 2010-12 season.
McAdoo finished with his sixth double-double of the season with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Sophomore guard Marcus Paige had all 13 of his points in the second half. Earlier in the season, that likely would not have been enough.
“We’re getting comfortable being able to play consistently, we’re not having the ups and downs we had earlier in the year,” Paige said. “We’re figuring ourselves out as a team and peaking at the right time late in ACC play.”
Peaking? Yes. But not to the point where North Carolina coach Roy Williams felt comfortable proclaiming his team has arrived. He could point to the sluggish start at Florida State on Monday when they trailed by 15 and had scored just six points midway through the first half.
Even Williams had to admit the Heels have matured from the team that posted big nonconference wins.
“Those wins we had earlier in the season, they needed those, they really did,” Williams said. “Right now I think we all need to continue to play well because we’re gaining confidence from it. I don’t think you’re ever going to say, ‘We’re there.’”
Maybe not, but Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said the Heels are playing with an intangible confidence.
“We didn’t have ‘it,’ whatever the hell ‘it’ is,” Krzyzewski said. “When you have ‘it’ -- I thought Carolina had ‘it’ -- then you’re going to lose to a team like that.”
The Heels keep adding new wrinkles to their winning formula during their streak. Thursday it happened to be the reintroduction of Leslie McDonald.
The senior from Memphis entered the game having made just two of his previous 15 from 3-point range and was 8-of-31 from the field since scoring a season-high 20 points against NC State.
McDonald carried the Heels offensively in the first half against the Blue Devils, scoring 11 of their 30 points en route to a new season-high of 21. He did it by abandoning his normal hangout spots beyond the 3-point line and pulling up for mid-range jumpers or driving to the basket.
“The last time I did that was in high school and I don’t remember that,” McDonald joked.
Carolina had already used zone more often this season than at any other time during Williams’ tenure. But they waited until the second half to unveil a 1-3-1 against Duke, which Maryland and former Williams’ disciple Mark Turgeon also used with some success last week.
Williams has admitted before his reluctance to go zone for fear of giving up rebounds, but it helped slow the Blue Devils down. It was partly responsible for keeping Duke’s Jabari Parker without a touch for a five-minute span from 7:55 to 2:44, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. Carolina went from trailing by four to leading by four during that span.
“That 1-3-1 really helped us, we had never shown it in a game so it may have caught them off guard a little bit,” Paige said. “I don’t think they scored a whole bunch out of it and it kind of took them out of rhythm offensively.”
The Heels continue to get unexpected, yet timely, contributions.
Carolina entered the game shooting just 62 percent from the free throw line and only made 7 of 14 first-half attempts. Freshman guard Nate Britt was perfect in six free throw attempts and led a 13-for-17 effort in the second half.
With forward Brice Johnson in foul trouble the entire game, center Desmond Hubert tied his season-high with 11 minutes. He doesn’t bring the same offensive presence as Johnson, but for the second straight game he had a dunk putback off a missed shot. Hubert had just eight rebounds in conference play, but finished with a season-high five.
They’re doing it as a team and their confidence is growing as long as their winning streak.
“This is a big win for us and it proves to a lot of people that those wins early in the season -- our potential that we showed -- we’re starting to get there,” Paige said. “This team can make a deep run if we keep working and we can beat any team in the country if we play to our potential.”