Gutsy, gritty, tough, resilient.
Whatever word you want to use cliche or not, that's what this game was for UNC and despite getting off to one of the worst starts of the season. UNC shot the ball poorly and also dealt with an epidemic of foul trouble resulting in an early 21-6 deficit. Despite the sizable hole the Heels turned that into an 81-75 win at Florida State.
Early on this game unfolded in the worst possible way for the Tar Heels. During the first eight minutes UNC had everything go wrong that could go wrong. FSU's Ian Miller got off to a hot start hitting two threes and nothing UNC threw at the basket would go in. The Heels started the game 2-13 from the floor and committed four turnovers to fuel a 21-6 FSU run. Marcus Paige was largely ineffective, James Michael McAdoo couldn't get a shot to fall then picked up three fouls in the first half, one that never really happened. Brice Johnson came into the game and was effective in helping to jumpstart UNC's run to get back into the game before also being saddled with three fouls. The foul trouble and Joel James being out of sorts led Roy Williams to using any number of patchwork lineups which included Jackson Simmons, Desmond Hubert and at one point Luke Davis.
Ultimately the resurgence was led by Kennedy Meeks was 11-12 from the floor for 23 points. The Charlotte freshman has had his share of troubles in recent games. Given FSU's size, this game didn't look like a candidate for him to play at the level he did however Meeks was able to use his size to score in the post. With UNC down 30-20, Meeks would score 11 of UNC's next 13 points to help draw the Heels to within three at the break.
In the second half, Meeks continued his roll until the appearance of Second Half Marcus Paige both as facilitator then scorer. Paige assisted on three baskets and after Nate Britt gave UNC the lead at 57-55 with 10:05 left in the game, Paige went on a scoring tear. The sophomore guard scored 11 of UNC's next 13 points hitting a trio of threes, a jumper and assisting on the other two points. The Heels survived one last FSU push to walk out of Tallahassee with their third straight win over Florida State. Paige ended up scoring 16 of his 20 points in the second half while dishing out seven assists. Johnson added a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Tokoto chipped in 10 points and had five assists.
And all of this happened without James Michael McAdoo scoring a single point. McAdoo started the second half with three fouls and promptly was whistled for his fourth. Williams held him out of the game for most of the half and shortly after returning McAdoo fouled out with 4:19 left in the game. It was part and parcel to a pattern of officiating in this game that was some of the worst seen this season. The officials were too involved in the game and an incredibly inconsistent. They were, in short, as bad all game as UNC was in the first eight minutes.
With so much going wrong, UNC really needed to dig deep to find the necessary effort to win and ended up leaning heavily on Simmons, Hubert and Britt, probably more than is really optimal. All three answered the ball. While the plus/minus can be a little unreliable, in this case it tells an interesting story. For the game Britt was +14, Hubert was +10 and Simmons was +15. All three had at least one crucial play. For Simmons is was a dive on the floor for the ball then rolling the ball to Meeks for a basket. Hubert had a putback dunk in the second half and Britt made the basket that put UNC up for good midway through the second half.
A month ago, this was a team that had zero margin of error. If one or two key pieces didn't show up then they were in deep trouble against even ACC bottom feeders like Wake Forest or Miami. This game is a perfect illustration of how far the Tar Heels have come in six weeks. Somehow UNC went on the road, overcame a poor start and early 15 point deficit to win despite getting no production from McAdoo or McDonald and Paige playing well in just one half. If this game had happened in early January, UNC would have folded like a cheap beach chair.