North Carolina hardly looked the part of a team expected to win another ACC championship given the way it started its conference schedule. But after a dominating midweek road performance, it seems like that Tar Heel swagger may finally be back.
No. 5 North Carolina looks to build off its first league win of the season Saturday when it hosts Miami, which will conversely be trying to open with its best league start in three years and comes off a huge win of its own.
The Tar Heels (15-2, 1-2) began the season as the nation’s top-ranked team and were a consensus pick to win their third straight ACC title. They remained at No. 1 in the next seven AP polls, but their bid for an undefeated season came to an end with the start of conference play.
North Carolina lost to Boston College 85-78 in its league opener Jan. 4, but managed to bounce back with a 108-70 win over Charleston on Jan. 7. Its ACC schedule resumed last Sunday at then-No. 4 Wake Forest, but it fell 92-89 in a particularly sloppy performance.
While they looked shaky in their first two conference games, the Heels avoided their first 0-3 start in conference play since 1996-97 with an 83-61 win at Virginia on Thursday thanks to solid performances from Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson.
Hansbrough finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds against the Cavaliers after scoring 17 points - his fewest since his second game of the season - on only 3-of-12 shooting in the loss to the Demon Deacons.
Lawson had 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting with nine assists on Thursday after finishing with nine points on 4-of-12 shooting on Sunday.
The Heels were much crisper on the offensive end versus Virginia, turning the ball over only nine times after committing 18 turnovers against Wake, and the defense limited the Cavaliers to just 30.5 percent shooting.
“It feels real good,” Hansbrough said. “It was kind of frustrating. We’ve all been trying to get everything straight within the team and I think it was just us wanting to play like we know how to play and doing some things defensively and coming together.”
Hansbrough looks to build off Thursday’s performance versus the Hurricanes (13-3, 2-1), whom he has had significant success against.
The reigning national player of the year finished with 35 points on 10-of-15 shooting and eight rebounds in North Carolina’s 98-82 win at Miami last season, and is averaging 26.8 points in four career games against the Hurricanes.
The Tar Heels have won three straight over Miami since an 81-70 home loss on Jan. 14, 2006. In their last meeting at the Dean Smith Center on Jan. 31, 2007, North Carolina crushed the Hurricanes 105-64.
But Miami enters this matchup with significant momentum as it comes off a dramatic comeback victory, erasing a 17-point second-half deficit to beat Maryland 62-60 on Wednesday.
After falling behind 52-35, the Hurricanes sank seven 3-pointers in the final 10:30, including the game-winner by Jack McClinton with 24 seconds left. McClinton finished with a team-high 18 points for Miami, which took its first lead with just 77 seconds remaining.
“What a game,” coach Frank Haith said. “It gives our guys an understanding we can do some great things. We can have a special team when we play up to our ability.”
The Hurricanes won their second straight conference game and their sixth in a row overall since losing to then-No. 25 Clemson 91-72 in their ACC opener on Dec. 21. Miami, which defeated then-No. 17 Boston College 77-71 last Saturday, is trying to open 3-1 in conference play for the first time since 2005-06.