ATLANTA — Since North Carolina adopted a smaller starting lineup last week before its game at Duke, P.J. Hairston, the Tar Heels’ sophomore guard, has received the most attention amid UNC’s successful transition to a new style of play.
During the Heels' 70-58 victory here on Tuesday night against Georgia Tech, though, two players who recently have been overshadowed and overlooked might have benefited most of all from a change that has given the Tar Heels (18-8, 8-5 ACC) renewed hope in what had been a sluggish season.
In the first half against the Yellow Jackets (14-11, 4-9), that player was James Michael McAdoo, UNC’s sophomore forward. During the first two games when UNC went small, McAdoo struggled to fit in offensively. He scored nine points in the loss at Duke last week, and nine again in a victory on Saturday against Virginia.
As the Heels’ only true starting forward, McAdoo, who has played through back pain for nearly two weeks, was more assertive early on Tuesday night. He scored 15 of his 22 points during the first 20 minutes, when he made seven of his 13 attempts from the field.
McAdoo helped guide the Tar Heels through their perimeter shooting woes during the first half, when Hairston made just one of his five 3-point attempts. UNC shot just 37.8 percent overall – a figure that perhaps wasn’t all that surprising against the Yellow Jackets, who entered the night ranked 13th nationally in field goal percentage defense.
Given Georgia Tech’s defensive acumen, beating the Jackets before they had a chance to become set was important for the Tar Heels. And Dexter Strickland, UNC’s senior guard, helped them do that – especially during the second half.
With Georgia Tech trailing by six with about 13 and-a-half minutes to play, Strickland secured possession after a Yellow Jackets turnover and raced ahead. He sprinted down the court and passed ahead to Reggie Bullock, who made the layup to give the Heels an eight-point lead. At time, it tied for UNC’s largest of the game.
Moments later, after Georgia Tech’s Marcus Georges-Hunt missed a 3-pointer, the sequence repeated itself. Strickland secured the rebound, outran the Yellow Jackets and threw a long bounce pass to Bullock. He made another layup to put UNC ahead 53-41 with less than 13 minutes remaining.
Those two plays were part of a 12-0 that gave UNC control of the game for good. By the end of that run, the Tar Heels led 59-41 – an enormous margin given the Yellow Jackets’ season-long struggles on offense.
The Yellow Jackets entered Tuesday night ranked last in the ACC in offensive efficiency, field goal percentage (41.7 percent), 3-point field goal percentage (31.1 percent) and free-throw percentage (63.9 percent). Against UNC, Georgia Tech missed its first seven throws – and the Jackets were 0-for-6 during the first half.
Georgia Tech scored its 41st point with 14 minutes and 20 seconds remaining, and it didn’t score again for nearly seven minutes. After that, the Jackets went about three more minutes without a point.
By then, the Tar Heels led 66-47.
It wasn’t always pretty, either, for UNC, which shot 37.9 percent. But the Tar Heels, who scored 21 points off of 19 Yellow Jackets’ turnover, had more than enough. UNC outscored Georgia Tech 21-12 in points off turnovers, and the Heels also generated nine second-chance points against Tech, which entered as the ACC’s best defensive rebounding team.
McAdoo, in addition to his 22 points, finished with 11 rebounds. Leslie McDonald added 15 points for UNC, and Strickland, who struggled through a 2-for-9 shooting performance, finished with seven assists and six rebounds.
The Tar Heels entered Tuesday night fearful of how their small lineup would fare against Georgia Tech’s formidable frontcourt. The supposed mismatch, though, never transpired – for either team.
Instead, UNC used its new lineup to find a new way to win.