Following a heartbreaking loss to its biggest rival, North Carolina seemed to regain its swagger with a convincing victory over a ranked foe.
A game against Miami also could help bolster its confidence.
The eighth-ranked Tar Heels, who beat the Hurricanes by 17 points last month, look to win their 10th straight in the series when the teams meet Wednesday night in Coral Gables.
North Carolina (21-4, 8-2 ACC) was on its way to a big win last Wednesday, leading Duke by 10 points with 2:38 to play, but the Tar Heels fell apart and would lose 85-84 on freshman Austin Rivers’ 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The defeat stung, but North Carolina didn’t let it linger, regrouping to beat then-No. 19 Virginia 70-52 on Saturday to remain tied atop the ACC with fifth-ranked Duke and No. 20 Florida State.
“After the Duke loss, obviously we were upset, but we felt like we had the game in hand, and the last three minutes we just didn’t execute,” guard Kendall Marshall said. “We know the type of team we are. We came out slow Saturday, but once we played Carolina basketball, we found a way to win.”
Tyler Zeller finished with 25 points and nine rebounds against the Cavaliers, Harrison Barnes had 14 points and 11 boards, and John Henson added 10 points and 10 rebounds.
With those three crashing the boards, the Tar Heels completely overwhelmed Virginia and had a 52-32 rebounding advantage.
Owning the glass has been the recipe for success for North Carolina, the nation’s top rebounding team with 46.3 per game and an average plus-11.8 differential. Three of the Tar Heels’ four losses came in games they were outrebounded.
Henson leads the ACC with 10.3 rebounds per game and Zeller ranks third at 9.6.
Each of them had double-doubles as North Carolina dominated the boards against Miami on Jan. 10, holding a 45-29 edge in a 73-56 home victory.
The Tar Heels are 17-2 all-time against the Hurricanes (15-8, 6-4) and have won nine straight in the series since an 81-70 home loss Jan. 14, 2006. This is Miami’s longest active losing streak against any ACC foe.
North Carolina also frustrated Miami’s talented backcourt duo of Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott, limiting them to 17 points on 6-for-20 shooting.
The two again struggled a bit in Saturday’s 64-59 loss to Florida State, snapping Miami’s five-game winning streak. Scott finished with 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting while Grant scored nine and went 3 of 9 from the floor.
The Seminoles’ swarming defense limited the Hurricanes, who came in ranked third in the ACC in 3-point shooting at 35.9 percent, to 5 of 22 from beyond the arc (22.7 percent) and made Reggie Johnson a non-factor. The 6-foot-10 center took four shots and finished with four points and three turnovers after averaging 18.3 points, 13.7 field-goal attempts and 1.7 turnovers in his previous three games.
“They put a lot of pressure on your perimeter players and it makes it hard to make perimeter passes,” coach Jim Larranaga said. “If you can’t move the ball easily from side to side, then it becomes difficult to post-feed. When we tried to get it to Reggie they were flying at him, not easy for him in a game like this.”
Johnson had better luck against UNC, finishing with 12 points on 6-of-10 shooting and nine rebounds, but the Hurricanes misfired on 13 of 16 shots from 3-point range.