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February 15, 2014

Heels persevere for sixth straight

CHAPEL HILL--- After the winter weather hit the Triangle and cancelled North Carolina's rivalry match up Wednesday against Duke, the Pittsburgh Panthers came into town for the first time as an ACC opponent ranked No. 25 in the nation and looking to avenge a heart-breaking loss to Syracuse earlier this week, as the Panthers were defeated by a 36 footer buzzer beater.

The matchup between the Panthers and Tar Heels became another nail bitter, but UNC prevailed 75-71 as James Michael McAdoo put in 24 points and 12 rebounds to lead the way.

Uncharacteristic of recent performances in the Smith Center against the likes of N.C. State and Maryland---two teams who each went on the road and scared two of the ACC's frontrunners in Syracuse and Duke Saturday---the Tar Heels came out with some early turnovers and fell behind against Pitt.

The Panthers attacked the paint and boards early on in getting out to a 20-13 lead 10 minutes into the game.

The Tar Heels battled back as they were able to tie the game up at 27 with plays down low by Brice Johnson and McAdoo, as they scored the next 10 of 14 points.

Kennedy Meeks got the start again for the Tar Heels but got in early foul trouble, allowing Johnson to get some early minutes. And he made the best of them.

However, the biggest play that might have occurred in that run was the second foul called on Pitt's leading scorer Lamar Patterson, as he had to check out at the 9:35 mark in the first half and had to sit for a while.

The Tar Heels were able to outscore the Panthers 22-11 in the final 10 minutes of the first half to give them a 35-31 lead at halftime.

North Carolina started to pick up right where they left off with their defensive intensity in the second half. Then they started to hit the outside shot, something they struggled with at times in the first half.

Marcus Paige hit three three-pointers in the first 10 minutes of the second half, while UNC stretched their lead to double digits for the first time.

Paige went 5-of-9 from the floor, with all his baskets coming from behind the arc, and also added a four-point play as UNC was looking to put the game away in the second 20 minutes.

Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon, who played zone for several minutes in the first and second half, switched his defense up to man-to-man, putting pressure on the ball and really making the Tar Heels work on offense.

That was the switch the Panthers needed, as they slowly started to creep back into the game with North Carolina having several possessions going deep into the shot clock and having costly turnovers midway through the final period.

What was once a 12 points lead for the Tar Heels, was cut down to three at the 4:25 mark, 65-62.

But the Tar Heels didn't buckle, but they did certainly make it interesting down the stretch.

North Carolina led 74-68 with 34 seconds left in the game, when McAdoo fouled out chasing the ball out of bounds to save it) and he hit both free throws.

The next play J.P. Tokoto turned the ball over on an out of bounds pass, as Artis was then fouled again and went to the line.

Artis only hit one, but Meeks wasn't able to control the ball before going out of bounds. Now, the Tar Heels didn't have possession with 22 seconds left and they didn't have McAdoo on the floor.

The Panthers drew up a play, but weren't able to convert.

Yet, UNC still wasn't able to retain possession, with Jackson Simmons being on the out-of-bounds line when he had possession of the ball, giving the Panthers yet another chance with nine seconds to go.

Patterson got a decent look at the basket behind the arc, but wasn't able to convert, as Johnson was then fouled going for the rebound.

Johnson sealed the deal, hitting 1-of-2 from the line and pushing the Tar Heels to its four point triumph, which improves UNC to 17-7 overall and 7-4 in ACC play, putting Carolina in sole possession of fourth place for the moment.

Paige finished the afternoon with 18 points, while Johnson was the only other player in double figures (along with leading scorer McAdoo) with 13 points.

While pleased with Johnson's offensive success, Williams specifically praised Johnson's five blocks, which proved to be game changers.

"Those five blocked shots were huge," Williams repled about Johnson. "In fact, I thought it might have been a key play of the game if we had come up with the ball (talking about his final block in the closing seconds when McAdoo fouled out of the game)."

"He's (Johnson) really doing some good things for us."

North Carolina shot 44 percent from the floor and shot 60 percent from the free throw line (15-of-25).

Williams wasn't always happy with his team but understands that this was a tough Pittsburgh team and he will take the win, which is his team's sixth in a row heading into a showdown Monday night in Tallahassee against Florida State.

He also understands that his team's defense in the game was a game changer, as they limited Patterson to 5-of-15 shooting and allowed the Panthers only 41 percent shooting from the floor and 27 percent from behind the arc.

"Well Lamar (Patterson) is really a big time player," said Williams after the game. "The first thing is that it helped he got two fouls in the first half and sat out all that time. I think that was the biggest part of it."

"J.P (Tokoto) did a nice job. And when J.P. (Tokoto) was out in the first half, Isaiah Hicks did a good job on him. In the second half, Leslie McDonald ended up guarding him more, but he's one of the most complete players I think there is in college basketball. He carries them on his shoulder, but those guys are pretty doggone good as well."

The Tar Heels certainly improved their March Madness resume with another win over another top 25 team, and will have a chance to get another such victory this coming week when Duke makes up for the missed game Wednesday with a trip to the Smith Center on Thursday.

UNC will have to play four games in eight days, including Saturday's triumph, but Williams certainly won't make an excuse for it.

But for right now, the team has bought into what the coaching staff has taught them and they seem to understand that every game requires a sense of urgency.

A win over Pittsburgh is a solid win and one to enjoy, but come Sunday they'll be right back to the drawing board getting ready for the Seminoles.

"It's a big win over a very good basketball team, and I'm glad I don't have to go to Pittsburgh this year," Williams said."They're awfully good but we made some big plays."


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