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January 23, 2013North Carolina has been playing well at home all season, with its only setback in the Smith Center coming earlier this month to ACC frontrunner Miami, who solidified its place atop the league Wednesday night with a 90-63 shellacking of Duke in Coral Gables.
Shortly after Miami did its thing against the Blue Devils, the Tar Heels went out and took care of Georgia Tech, claiming a 79-63 victory that improved UNC to 3-2 in league play heading into Saturday night's rivalry clash with N.C. State in Raleigh.
"We feel good (about the win)," said UNC head coach Roy Williams immediately afterwards. "We played in spurts. That's about the best part of it. We got off to a good start offensively moving the ball and running the ball, and then we got stagnant."
"We haven't gotten established yet being able to run after a make, which our teams in the past have been able to do really well, and we haven't done that well (this season)," Williams added. "I think it's easier to score when the defense is not set, and it usually starts with a good play on the defense end---either getting a turnover or getting a missed shot and running."
"I think we're close---I really do," Williams continued.
"I think we're close to being a good basketball team. We've got to finish plays more. As I said, we've got to make more shots. There's no question about that."
"We're doing some good things. The best news is, we can get a lot better. I hope it's in my lifetime. I think we have every area of the game to improve on."
UNC's third straight win and ninth victory in ten games this season in the Smith Center came on the strength of strong defense and quality shooting, as the Tar Heels got a combined five three pointers from Reggie Bullock (17 points) and P.J. Hairston (15 points), as well as 14 points from James Michael McAdoo, along with forcing 19 turnovers and blocking 10 shots over the course of the game.
Desmond Hubert was particularly active on defense, setting a new career high with five blocks.
"Desmond is getting more active, and that's a big thing for us, because he gives us the defensive play and the rebounding. He had a bunch of blocks---five blocked shots," said Williams.
Early on North Carolina found themselves making shots, as Hairston came off the bench and buried two three pointers, and Marcus Paige nailed a three of his own to make the score 23-15 in favor of the Tar Heels eight minutes in.
The lead stretched out to 27-15 and then 30-17 a little over midway through the opening half, but Georgia Tech, a young team searching for an identity and in desperate need of a win, rallied for an 8-1 run to pull within 31-25 around the 5:00 mark, and then 36-32 with two minutes left in the half.
But as they did in the win against Maryland on Saturday, UNC had an answer every single time the Yellow Jackets made a push to cut into the advantage, as the Tar Heels scored two unanswered baskets to stretch the lead back to 40-32 at halftime.
In all nine different Tar Heels scored in the opening half, led by Bullock's nine points.
In the first two minutes of the second half UNC stretched the lead back out to 13 points (47-34), and for the rest of the way they failed to let Georgia Tech get within single digits again.
Despite the fact that UNC got out-rebounded by the Yellow Jackets, who fall to 0-5 in ACC play with the loss, they were able to maintain control by holding Tech to just 36 percent shooting on the evening.
"Georgia Tech, I feel for them. They've really gotten better, but the opening part of conference play, they've had by far the most difficult schedule in the league. They're going to be a load for anybody as the second half of this season starts here," said Williams.
Perhaps what was most impressive about this win for Carolina was the workmanlike way in which they held on down the stretch.
They continued to play hard on both ends of the court, refusing to slack off defensively while continuing to push the ball and strive for high-percentage shots offensively.
And while they finished shooting just 43 percent for the game, there were a ton of highlight moments, including Hairston and Bullock's three balls, a dynamic Hairston dunk in the second half, and J.P. Tokoto rebounding his own missed shot for a putback dunk.
Hairston's dunk in particular will likely get a lot of airtime Thursday on the evening news around the Triangle, and perhaps on Sportscenter as well.
"For us, we didn't shoot the ball as well. I'm going to go down dying one of these days keeping saying that we're a really good shooting team---we just don't make a lot of shots---but the bottom line is that we scored more points than they (Tech) did," Williams said.
Hairston's strong outing Wednesday certainly won't quiet those who think he should be in Carolina's starting lineup, but coming off a dreadful one-for-eight shooting performance Saturday against Maryland, it's still a situation where he's got to figure out a way to be more consistent.
"It would be consistency if we got it (every game from Hairston), but we don't have it yet. One for eight (against Maryland), and then five for eleven (against Georgia Tech)," said Williams of the Greensboro sophomore. "I'll take three for six from the three-point line every time (from Hairston), but we've got to get the consistency out of him if he's going to be the big-time player we need him to be."
By playing hard and effectively for 40 minutes, Carolina gave its fans a reassuring performance against the Yellow Jackets that this young team is making steady progress.
And with three straight victories, they're showing with each passing game that they are indeed a team to fear this winter.
UNC now moves on to Saturday night's rivalry showdown in Raleigh against N.C. State, which is coming off a stunning setback Tuesday night at Wake Forest and will surely be fired up to end Carolina's remarkable 13-game winning streak against them, going back to the 2006-2007 season.
But the way Carolina is playing right now, it's likely going to be a war Saturday evening in PNC Arena.