North Carolina headed down to Atlanta for a business trip to Georgia Tech Tuesday night and did what it had to do, claiming a 70-58 victory that was vital in UNC's ever-increasing hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
UNC, which improved to 18-8 overall and 8-5 in ACC play with the win, didn't shoot particularly well on the whole, making just 30 percent of its three-pointers (six-of-20) and less than 40 percent on all shots, but the Tar Heel defense perplexed the Yellow Jackets and kept them off-rhythm and on the run much of the evening.
Playing for the third straight game with P.J. Hairston in a smaller starting rotation, UNC's perimeter-oriented approach forced Georgia Tech to pay a lot of attention to the outside, opening things up in the middle for James Michael McAdoo.
McAdoo, who has had a couple of recent rough outings, brought it all together against the Jackets, scoring 15 points in the first half alone and breaking the 20-point mark before the midway point of the second half.
By the time UNC had broken out to a 59-41 mark at the 8:47 mark of the final period, McAdoo was in double-double territory with 22 points and 10 rebounds. He finished with 22 points and 11 boards.
Before too long the Tar Heels were leading by 20 points---the kind of score that has been non-existent pretty much everywhere else on the road UNC has played this season---and the Yellow Jackets faithful were streaming towards the exits early.
And while Tech made it closer at the end, the final score didn't reflect the way in which UNC coolly and calmly controlled the game.
"You're always happy about a win in the ACC on the road, when especially it's an ugly game at times for both teams," said head coach Roy Williams after the game. "I thought we had 100 turnovers and we only had nine, but I think in the first half James Michael McAdoo having 15 points was really big for us. In the second half, I thought Reggie Bullock got out on the break and we found him on the break. He got nine points and all of those were in the second half. Marcus Paige had eight; all of them in the second half. Dexter Strickland had four, all in the second half because our starting guy is on the perimeter."
"Give North Carolina credit, they took control of the game at about the 12 minute mark in the second half," added Georgia Tech head coach Brian Gregory.
"They (UNC) took advantage of some turnovers and some missed shots to get some transition baskets.
"They're good," Gregory added about the Tar Heels. "They're going with the smaller lineup, ,and I thought we did a pretty good job against that, in particular guarding P.J. Hairston at the four, which was good to see because that was a new challenge for us."
"At the same time, their quickness, in particular McAdoo at the five gave us some problems. We didn't take care of the ball. In the second half our turnovers were a big key."
It was a reprieve for the Tar Heels on Georgia Tech's home court, as the old arena, known as Alexander Memorial, was a house of horrors for UNC over the years.
But so far so good in newly-refurbished McCamish Pavilion, as the Tar Heels picked up its first victory over the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta since 2008.
The teams stayed close throughout the first half, and while UNC shot below 40 percent over the first 20 minutes and three players scored all but four of Carolina's points, they held a 36-30 halftime margin behind their solid defense, which held the Yellow Jackets under 50 percent shooting and forced over twice as many turnovers as the Tar Heels had themselves.
For the game, the Yellow Jackets had 19 turnovers, compared to just nine for UNC.
"It's hard to win games shooting 38 percent. It's still a W and that's the way we'll look at it and that's the way we'll take it," said Williams.
McAdoo led three Tar Heels in double-figures---a group that included Leslie McDonald (15 points) and Hairston (10 points).
The Tar Heels held Georgia Tech without a single field goal for a stretch of over seven minutes in the second half as they gained a confidence-inspiring victory heading into Saturday's rivalry clash with N.C. State in the Smith Center.
"I don't like to look down and see that they outrebounded us 43-38 and in second chance points, 12-9. We don't like that. I do like the fact that we got out on the fast break a little bit more," said Williams.