updated: 11:50 p.m.
NEW YORK – Snowy weather? Travel troubles? No full team practice in more than a week?
No problem for North Carolina, which blew out Rutgers 78-55 on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
The Tar Heels (9-4) – who were supposed to reconvene in New York City on Sunday night, after their holiday break – instead arrived roughly 12 hours before tipoff, due to the blizzard the piled snow atop Manhattan and down the East Coast.
After having six players (John Henson, Justin Knox, Tyler Zeller, Dexter Strickland, Larry Drew II and walk-on D.J. Johnston) miss Sunday’s shootaround because they couldn’t get back to campus, every Tar Heel except Strickland and Johnston were able to practice with the team in Chapel Hill for at least part of Monday. Strickland, who watched 31 inches of snow fall in his hometown of Rahway, N.J., made the drive into NYC to re-join his team Tuesday morning. Johnston, a junior from Lower Gwynedd, Penn., took the train.
“It was difficult for us,’’ coach Roy Williams said. “ … It was a lot of distractions for us, but life has a lot of distractions. And that’s what I told the guys, ‘Just step up and play.’”
Indeed, the travel and practice challenges didn’t seem to slow sharpshooting UNC all that much.
Rutgers (9-3), which had cracked 80 points only once in its first 11 games, began with the gameplan of trying to slow the pace.
It didn’t work.
Strickland (who practiced in a gym at home since he couldn’t re-join the team in North Carolina) and Drew II (who also missed part of Monday morning's workout because he was taking a red-eye from the West Coast) combined for nine points in the Tar Heels’ 14-2 game-opening run. It wasn’t all that pretty, as each team turned the ball over four times apiece in the first five minutes. But that breakaway – as well as two 3-pointers from sophomore Leslie McDonald in the first half -- set the pace for the game.
The Tar Heels led 42-22 at halftime, as they outscored the Scarlet Knights 11-0 in fast break points, 14-3 off turnovers, and shot 56.7 percent.
And after spotting the Knights the first five points of the second half on two straight turnovers, the only real question in the final 19 was which Tar Heel(s) might reach double figures, considering the relatively-even team scoring.
McDonald was the first to do it, burying back-to-back 3-pointers that gave UNC a 55-31 lead with 14:44 left. He finished with 14 points. Reserve Justin Watts also showed his range with 10 points. Thus, Williams was particularly impressed with his bench, which outscored Rutgers 38-13.
“They were really good in the second half,’’ Williams said of his reserves. “They took it [the lead] from 17 or 18 to 24, 25, something like that.”
Jonathan Mitchell led Rutgers, which made only 33.9 percent of its shots, with 20 points.
Zeller pulled down 10 rebounds for the Tar Heels. And although Strickland failed to reach double-digit scoring for the first time in four games (he had 9 points), his pretty drive and finger roll in the second half showed off a bit of what he must have been working on while he was snowed in over the weekend in Jersey.
“I think the key to the game was it was a win for North Carolina,’’ Williams said, likely hoping that the team would have no more troubles returning there Tuesday night.