Dexter Strickland has been a different player since North Carolina has gone to a four-guard starting lineup. ROBERT WILLETT
CHAPEL HILL — And after a long day of driving, working on a few stories and finding time to stop in Lexington at a certain famous BBQ spot, I’m back. Been a busy 24 hours – a stretch that began last night with North Carolina’s 68-59 victory against Clemson.
Here's the story of the game, persevered for posterity. And, as always, here’s the look back:
Three things to take away from UNC’s victory:
1. UNC won, but Roy Williams wasn’t all that happy.
A reader emailed me earlier today wondering why my story off the game was so negative. I told him to get in touch with Williams, the UNC coach, who practically wrote my story for me while he criticized the Tar Heels for everything from their inability to rebound in the second half to bad turnovers they made down the stretch. UNC won comfortably, but Williams wasn’t all that impressed. His team’s second-half performance bothered him so much that he spent about 90 percent of his postgame news conference discussing it. At one point, he called his players “pansies.” And here I was, about to write a story about how far Dexter Strickland had come since UNC has gone to a smaller lineup.
2. Speaking of which, Strickland’s transformation continues.
Strickland struggled through UNC’s preseason conditioning drills, and he struggled through a lot of the first half of the season. He was still recovering from the season-ending knee injury he suffered in January 2012. The low point might have come in early January, when he scored no points and compiled no other statistics – aside from a lone missed from the field – in a home loss against Miami. Strickland last night was at his best, though, and finished with 16 points – his season-high for an ACC game. Strickland has simply been a different player since UNC started to use this smaller, faster four-guard lineup. His improvement is one of the reasons the Tar Heels are a much better team now than they were a month ago.
3. Williams wants more inside from James Michael McAdoo.
It wasn’t a great night for McAdoo, who had difficulty finishing scoring opportunities around the rim. Given his size and athleticism, McAdoo is a difficult matchup for any defender he faces. Sometimes, though, it seems he’s his own worst enemy down low. In particular, Williams wants to see McAdoo do a better job of finishing plays in the paint. Williams said, of McAdoo: “I told him, you’ve got to finish the ball around the basket. You’ve got to finish plays. You go in there, you’re big, strong, jump like crazy. Finish plays.” McAdoo finished with 11 points, but missed eight of his 13 shots from the field.
UNC dominated three of the four. The Tar Heels shot better, and by a wide margin, and also did a better job of limiting turnovers and getting to the free throw line. Clemson created more second-chance opportunities through offensive rebounds, but the Tigers didn’t often capitalize on those second chances.
UNC PLAYER OF THE GAME
Reggie Bullock did a little bit of everything on Thursday night, and he did it pretty well. He finished with 12 points, nine rebounds, six assists and three steals. Bullock continues to be one of UNC’s best rebounders. He tied his career high with 13 rebounds last weekend in the win against N.C. State. Outside of Bullock’s nine rebounds on Thursday, no other UNC player had more than five rebounds.
--With the victory, UNC guaranteed that it would finish the regular season with a winning record in ACC play. The Tar Heels also took another step away from the NCAA tournament bubble. UNC, which is on a four-game winning streak, has to be a lock now for the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels have lost just twice in the past month and those defeats came on the road at Miami and Duke. UNC has a chance to enter the postseason as one of the hottest power-conference teams in the country.
--When it’s loud and rocking, Littlejohn Coliseum can be one of the most difficult places to play in the ACC. Yet it wasn’t so on Thursday night. The Tar Heels took the sold-out crowd out of the game early. UNC led from the beginning, and never trailed. Clemson tied the game twice in the first half, but after the second time the game was tied the Heels closed the half on a 20-6 run and never relinquished control.
--Dexter Strickland, UNC’s senior guard, continued his late-season transformation at Clemson. Strickland early in the season struggled to regain his old form after a suffering a season-ending knee injury in January 2012. He labored through preseason conditioning drills, and struggled to regain his speed. It was on display on Thursday, though. Strickland’s 16 points were his season high for an ACC game. He also added four assists, and made seven of his nine attempts from the field.
--UNC coach Roy Williams wants James Michael McAdoo, the sophomore forward, to play with more authority in the post. McAdoo missed eight of his 13 attempts from the field. He had difficulty scoring inside against Devin Booker and Milton Jennings, Clemson’s two physical post players. Williams said he told McAdoo that he has “got to finish the ball around the basket. You’ve got to finish plays.” Said Williams: “You go in there, you’re big, strong, jump like crazy. Finish plays.”
--Asked a question by a local reporter about UNC’s history amid another 20-win season – its 40th in the past 43 seasons – Williams spoke of Dean Smith’s legacy and acknowledged Smith’s 82nd birthday, which was Thursday. Williams and the UNC coaching staff celebrated Smith’s birthday, with Smith, in the UNC basketball offices on Wednesday.
“We finished the game about as ugly as you could finish it – missing free throws. They outrebounded us by 14 in the second half … can’t have that and be very good. We got sloppy. We did about everything you could do (to lose). The second half, we played about like how I feel, which is not good.” –UNC coach Roy Williams
“They were going after the ball. We were acting like a bunch of pansies. I mean, we were standing there. Some of those were long rebounds, bounced out, and we’re standing there watching it.” –Williams, on second-half rebounding woes
“That would be a big-time excuse. The way somebody else plays doesn’t mean you should turn the ball over and it doesn’t mean you should miss free throws and the things that we did. James Michael – I told him, you’ve got to finish the ball around the basket. You’ve got to finish plays. You go in there, you’re big, strong, jump like crazy, finish plays. Marcus had zero turnovers in the first half and made two of the worst turnovers in the second half he’s ever made in his life. His mother was screaming at him on TV – I could hear her all the way down here … we just played sloppy as you could possibly play.” –Williams, on how Clemson’s style of play shouldn’t have forced UNC to play poorly
“That’s one of coach Williams’ favorite words. But he was right. At times we were soft.” –UNC guard Reggie Bullock, on Williams’ “pansies” line
UNC hosts Florida State on Sunday at the Smith Center. The Seminoles have been one of the ACC’s most disappointing teams since starting conference play with consecutive road wins.