UNC beats Rutgers with hot-shooting first half

NEW YORK - The travel plans were a nightmare, but North Carolina's reaction to them was a dream.
Apparently not being able to practice as a full team wasn't an obstacle for the Tar Heels, who, despite being separated by snowstorms after Christmas, had no problem locating the basket in the first half of a 78-55 win against Rutgers at Madison Square Garden.
"We hadn't had any practice with our (entire) team since the day before the William & Mary game," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "So it was difficult for us. There were a lot of distractions for us, but life has a lot of distractions. That's what I told the guys. You've got to step up and play."
Leslie McDonald hit four 3-pointers on the way to 14 points to lead the Tar Heels, who had one of their best outside shooting performances of the season.
Twice, McDonald hit back-to-back 3-pointers, with the second pair putting UNC up 55-31 just over five minutes into the second half.
The Tar Heels (9-4) shot 11 for 23 from 3-point range as a team, their best from outside the arc since a 12-for-17 showing against Hofstra in Puerto Rico, on the way to their fifth win in the last six games.
"I guess it was just one of those shooting days," McDonald said. "When we see each other hitting shots, it brings confidence, and we're like, 'Okay, who's hitting the next shot?'"
The Scarlet Knights (9-3) who had been off to their best start under a rookie head coach since 1945, improved slightly on their first-half 30-percent shooting rate in the second half, but by then, it was too late.
Rutgers' 5-for-22 showing from long range and 34 percent shooting overall made sure that UNC's early burst was enough to overcome some sloppy turnovers and a 37.5-percent shooting clip in the second half.
Carolina had great balance, with nine players scoring at least six points but none of the starters in double figures.
The only double-figure scorers for Carolina were McDonald and Justin Watts, who had 10 points, including a pair of threes.
Not bad team play for a team that hadn't played together in a week.
"We were not all together at practice, but we knew our assignment," McDonald said. "We wanted to beat them really bad."
The Tar Heels started the game hot enough to melt all the snow that kept them from practicing together at Madison Square Garden.
They opened the game with a 14-2 run over six minutes, behind five points from Larry Drew II and four from Dexter Strickland.
A little more than three minutes later, Carolina was on top 24-8 thanks to back-to-back 3-pointers from McDonald.
The Heels kept up that scoring pace thanks to shooting nearly 57 percent from the field, including a 6-for-13 showing from beyond the arc.
"We got a lot of shooting in with those guys Sunday night," Williams said. "I told the guys during the break that I didn't want them to play, but I told them to get some shots up if they got the chance."
Obviously, the practice paid off.
When they weren't firing in shots from long-range in the first half, they were making highlight-worthy plays in the paint, like an up-and-under reverse layup from Drew and a two-handed follow jam by Watts.
By halftime, UNC was up 42-22 despite having more turnovers (nine) than assists (seven).
That was about as good a scenario as they could have hoped for after arriving in New York less than 12 hours before tipoff thanks to a blizzard swept through the Northeast after Christmas.
Instead of arriving in Manhattan on Sunday night as originally planned, Carolina's players were called back to Chapel Hill to practice before flying up on game day.
Two Tar Heels -Strickland, who was stranded in 31 inches of snow in his hometown of Rahway, N.J., and walk-on D.J. Johnston, who was stuck in Philadelphia - didn't get to practice with the team at all, instead finally joining them here for pre-game shootaround.
"We didn't get that much practice, so it was important for us to get people in the flow," Strickland said. "It was very important for us to get off to a good start like we did."