Updated 7 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Haunting images began to come to James Michael McAdoo on Friday night when North Carolina arrived here for its game on Saturday against Florida State.
“We get to the hotel last night, I’m just like, man, this is bad memories all over,” McAdoo, the UNC sophomore forward, said following the Tar Heels’ 77-72 victory against the Seminoles. “Showing up to the arena today, just horrible memories in this place.”
Nearly a year ago to the day, UNC (11-5, 1-2) had suffered a 33-point loss against FSU here in the Donald L. Tucker Center. On Saturday, the Tar Heels celebrated a victory that both avenged that loss and provided a modicum of hope that perhaps they can turn around their season after an 0-2 start in ACC play.
McAdoo, who finished with 14 points, provided a glimpse of UNC’s strategy from the first play on Saturday. He caught a pass on the right wing, drove past a defender and into the lane for a layup. Fouled on the shot, he made the free throw to complete a three-point play.
“Just trying to set the tone from the get-go,” McAdoo said.
While he recounted that moment, P.J. Hairston, the sophomore forward, sat his locker, surrounded by cameras and microphones after scoring a career-high 23 points. Some of those points came on the four 3-pointers he made. Others came on a pair of aggressive one-handed dunks after beating the Seminoles’ defense.
Hairston and McAdoo both carried vivid memories of last season into Saturday. What happened in this building a year ago was fresh on their minds.
“I felt like I wanted it more than Florida State did,” Hairston said. “Because me, Reggie [Bullock] and Dexter [Strickland] – all of us being on that team last year – came down here and got basically embarrassed.
“We wanted to turn that around and come down here with revenge and basically beat them the entire night.”
It wasn’t exactly that easy. The Heels led by as many as six during the first half, and held a 33-31 halftime lead. But Florida State (10-6, 2-1) came back and held a slim lead of its own for about 11 minutes during the second half.
During that 33-point victory here last season, the Seminoles put on the kind of 3-point shooting exhibition that took its place alongside some of the most memorable in school history. And for a while Saturday, the Seminoles provided a suitable encore.
The first four shots that FSU made from the field during the second half were all 3s, and overall the Seminoles made six 3-pointers during the first eight minutes and three seconds of the second half. The last of those, which came from Aaron Thomas with 11:57 to play, gave Florida State a 55-51 lead, which tied for the ‘Noles largest.
“The second half, I just didn’t think we could stop their 3-point shots from going in,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “… But our guys fought like crazy.”
UNC trailed 72-69 with 4:16 to play, before one of Hairston’s dunks made it a one-point game. Jackson Simmons, a reserve forward who had never scored more than four points in a college game, then gave UNC the lead for good when he rebounded Reggie Bullock’s missed 3 and put it back amid defensive pressure.
Simmons, who turned 20 on Saturday, finished with eight points and four rebounds in 15 minutes.
“I’ve never won on my birthday, even in high school,” he said of where this birthday ranked compared to others. “So it’s up there. It’s number one by far.”
The Tar Heels on Saturday faced a set of late-game circumstances similar to those they experienced in defeats against Virginia and Miami. In those games, they wilted under pressure. On Saturday, they excelled.
UNC held Florida State scoreless during the final four minutes and 15 seconds, and the Heels closed the game on an 8-0 run. Williams said the Tar Heels felt “as fortunate as we can possibly be.”
Still, he said, “I just think our kids needed this, to say the least. We’ve been struggling, the pressure’s been on – the stress of being at North Carolina, starting out 0-2, on a young team is incredibly tough to handle, much less a veteran team.”
UNC is not a veteran team, yet for a change it didn’t succumb to youthful mistakes or a lack of urgency. For weeks, Williams and his players had talked about the need to play with a greater sense of purpose.
After lackadaisical performance, the Tar Heels had talked about the need to play with more energy and intensity.
“But today was the first time that I really thought we did have a big-time sense of urgency,” Williams said.
Perhaps nowhere was that more evident than after missed shots, the great majority of which the Tar Heels secured. They scored 19 points off of 19 offensive rebounds, and they limited the Seminoles to just six offensive rebounds.
UNC fought for rebounds, fought to end a two-game losing streak and fought to produce some good memories in a place that provided nothing but bad a year ago. Now the Tar Heels will fight to build off a victory they hope proves to be a catalyst.