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February 25, 2014

Heels coming together at right time

Leslie McDonald led the group of media members - photographers, videographers and reporters - through the center of the players lounge following this past Saturday's 33-point blowout of Wake Forest.

He said indecisively that he didn't know where to go and asked his followers for directions before settling on the sectional sofa facing the flat screen television on the wall.

The only feedback McDonald got on where to go was from J.P. Tokoto, who made sure the fifth-year senior didn't take Marcus Paige's signature interview spot - the spot in the corner closest to the locker room door, the one by the printers.

Tokoto settled himself at the only standard-height table in the room for his interviews and Kennedy Meeks sat on the other couch in the room, facing McDonald, but not directly.

Interviews were more like conversations after North Carolina (20-7, 10-4 ACC) finished its four-games-in-eight-days challenge by beating Wake Forest 105-72 to extended its ACC winning streak to nine games and continue its undefeated month of February.

"We had to complete the streak," Paige said. "Coach (Roy Williams) always said, 'It's not special to go four games in eight days unless you win all four of them,' so that was our goal, just to get through this game. It was a great way to just end this rough stretch."

The rough stretch included a trio of battles---wins at home over ranked PIttsburgh and Duke, as well as a comeback win at Florida State---before a season-high in scoring, record-breaking offensive performance against the Demon Deacons rounded things out with ease.

Williams became the fastest coach in ACC history to get his 300th league win in what he called a bizarre game at Florida State.

McAdoo fouled out without scoring in Tallahassee and the previously-struggling Meeks broke out of his slump with a career-high 23 points as UNC recovered from a 15-point first-half deficit and beat Florida State 81-75.

The 74-66 win over no. 4 Duke made the Tar Heels the first team since the creation of the AP Poll to beat the top four preseason teams in the same year. It was also the first time an unranked UNC team beat a ranked Duke one in more than ten seasons - the first time under Williams' lead.

And then, North Carolina finished its quick four-game schedule by breaking triple digits for the first time in over a year while setting a school record for three-point shooting percentage in a single game with ten or more shots made behind the arc.

Senior walk-on Wade Moody contributed to that record .733 three-point shooting, dropping two threes, including one to make UNC hit 100 points as the team was 11 for 15 in the category against the hapless Wake Forest defense.

Moody came out to talk after the win too, to talk about his only six points of the season and their impact on the record books. Even he seemed more casual than he had when being interviewed weeks earlier about his basketball career and the journey of being a walk-on.

McAdoo seemed less guarded than he had all season, though his personality shows up more in interviews and post-game talk as his talent and aggression shows up increasingly on the court.

The junior, who's patchy beard has been a topic of growing discussion admitted that yes, even though his team hadn't lost since he'd started growing it, he was probably going to trim it up before playing at NC State because it could use it.

"Once you start winning you start enjoying that and buying into things collectively as a team," he said, meaning that his team has finally bought into the things Williams preaches in practices.

Although he personally isn't buying into the notion that he's not shaving the beard because it's lucky - he's not superstitious anyway.

After UNC's 94.1 percent free throw shooting in the first half against the Demon Deacons set a season-best for any half, the conversations weren't just about free throw shooting, just as the three-point performance didn't dictate a bunch of postgame questions.

Tokoto graciously answered questions about the specifics of his foul shot work after the loss to Belmont though - a game that happened more than three months ago.

He also answered a question about the ping pong table in the players' lounge and explained to a few reporters that the deep red showing through the ice taped to his right knee was, no, not blood.

After a 33-point win over Wake Forest, which had beaten UNC by six points at the beginning of January, the mood was different than it had been after any other game during the 2013-2014 season.

This was a calm, relaxed, confident basketball team that knew it had not only faced numerous hurdles in recent months, but had leaped the majority of them successfully.

North Carolina's players were happy talking about their 57.4 percent FG shooting percentage - their highest in conference play this year, their season-high 82.8 free throw shooting and the largest UNC margin of victory in a conference game since 2008.

The victory carried a sense of revenge, some said, from the setback in Winston-Salem to the Demon Deacons back on January 5, when things were decidedly different in the Tar Heel locker room.

Not to mention that it won locals cheap Bojangles biscuits.

McDonald, Paige and Moody discussed how they'd made their mark on UNC's all-time list for behind the arc shooting - "So you guys can not hate on us for being a bad three point shooting team for one game," Paige told the media crowd around him.

But even Williams had opened his post-game press conference laughing at the irony of the statistic. "Of all the teams to break that record...," he said, even before starting his official opening statement.

Paige, who took the longest to shower and come join the conversation about the game, sat at the same table Moody had been at.

For the first time in the season, the usually adamant-about-routine sophomore switched it up.

He said he thought Director of Player Development Eric Hoots, who was nearby, had directed him away from his signature spot, but then stayed put in a new position.

And Paige talked about the team's new position, and its mood.

The sophomore leader talked about national ranking more than he had all season - noting that the team's goals are, and always have been bigger than mere national rank, while recognizing that this team would be ranked again when voting happened the next day.

Indeed, the Tar Heels head into Wednesday night's game at N.C. State ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press national poll.

McDonald, the leading scorer for the second consecutive game who was second out of the locker room, behind only Isaiah Hicks who'd come out for a one-on-one interview without changing out of his throwback uniform, finally stood up from the couch about a minute after Paige started talking.

The fifth-year senior guard joked about how long he'd been out there - he'd answered the most questions, even as Meeks quickly interviewed nearby and yelled at the senior over reporters as he left the room.

UNC Sports Information Director Matt Bowers told McDonald that if he was trying to keep post-game talks under ten minutes, he'd have to stop performing so well.

The senior laughed and went into the locker room, but he'd come back out to answer one last reporter's questions and yell over Paige as he commented on McDonald's performance just as Meeks had yelled over him.

"He's obviously in a good mood," Paige said.

And he wasn't the only one.

Williams' opening statement said it first, but it was evident in seeing and talking to the players.

"You guys who have been here awhile have heard me say this a thousand times," Williams said. "Everything looks so much better when the ball goes into the basket."

But shots falling for North Carolina extended back past the Wake Forest game right on back to late January, when this team started maximizing its potential despite the season-long absence of P.J. Hairston.

This Tar Heel team, to coin a phrase, has bought in. They're doing all the little things that make the difference in close games. They're getting the big rebounds, forcing turnovers, making the extra pass, and playing solid defense.

And when you combine all that with shots falling, the Tar Heels are just about an unbeatable bunch.

As the last nine teams who have played them have learned.

"It wasn't just during this eight day stretch. Our kids have shown a lot greater attention to details. They've shown a greater sense of urgency. We've played pretty good basketball here in this whole stretch, not just in these eight days. And so, I didn't learn anything different because I thought we were playing pretty well before this four game stretch."

McAdoo believed the team had learned just how every single game mattered because of the quick turn around time between games.

"And I think we learned that we're a pretty good team," he added.

North Carolina took the Sunday after beating Wake Forest off from practice before preparing specifically for NC State.

But before the team left the Dean Dome before its day off, the UNC players spoke of the difference in the team that had earned its day off, and the one that was critiqued nationally as being dramatically inconsistent, unpredictable, volatile and over-rated following its first game against Wake Forest.

The way the team that broke back into the AP Poll's Top 25 for Week 17 interacted Saturday was a night-and-day difference from the way it had been when it dropped out of the rankings.

"Our will to win (is different), our want to," McAdoo said. "You could go down the line but we're just a totally different group of guys. We were just trying to change the atmosphere - the atmosphere has been changed."


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