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ACC update

SoVaNow.com / December 23, 2013
North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams tried to get his team’s attention with a challenging 5 a.m. practice after the loss to Texas midweek, but it appears the Tar Heels are still very much of a question mark, even after Saturday evening’s overtime 97-85 win over a pesky Davidson team.

UNC, shaking off that Wednesday night loss to Texas in Chapel Hill, is 8-3 heading into the Christmas break. Rebounding, terrible foul shooting, and a general lack of defensive toughness hampered the Heels against UT, but it appears the Heels will need to make some major improvements in order to remain as a top-of-the-line threat in the ACC men’s hoops race.

At least the Heels now know what kind of team they have. The school announced Friday that junior guard P.J. Hairston is done as a Tar Heel. Last year, Hairston led UNC in scoring at 14.6 ppg and connected on 89 three-pointers, but his strong perimeter presence will not be available as the Heels move forward. Meanwhile, Leslie McDonald has been reinstated, and the Carolina fifth-year senior contributed with nine points and two assists in the win over Davidson.

Carolina dominated the OT session, outscoring Davidson 18-6, after barely surviving the Wildcats in regulation. The Heels won the rebounding battle, 42-35, and forced 22 Wildcat turnovers.

But some issues remain. Davidson has some quality players and got stellar play from guard Brian Sullivan, who went seven of 14 from 3-point land and shredded the Heels for 33 points. But the Wildcats also are not at the level of some of the upper echelon ACC teams, either.

There has to be concern in the Carolina camp after Texas outrebounded UNC by a 51-42 margin, including 20-15 on the offensive glass. Texas guard Demarcus Holland, a 6-2 sophomore, showed just how much the Longhorns wanted that game when he hustled for a putback with 4.1 seconds remaining to provide the final score.

UNC owns quality wins over Kentucky, which had to rally to beat Belmont Saturday, Michigan State and defending national champion Louisville.

But the Heels could not repel Davidson at key moments in regulation Saturday, and that’s got to be a red flag moving forward. The Heels were better at the foul line Saturday, connecting on 34-of-47, 72.3 percent, but the Heels entered the Davidson contest with a team free throw percentage of .596, the worst in program history. Davidson had a last-shot opportunity from three-point range, but Sullivan’s heave missed at the end of regulation.

But the late-game drama proved almost too much for the Tar Heels, who were leading by six points in the second half until Sullivan sliced the UNC lead to three with 8:43 remaining on a 3-pointer. From there, the Heels could not establish late game consistency against the Wildcats.

Carolina finished with five players in double figures, led by 22 from J.P. Tokoto, and Marcus Paige shook off a tough shooting night (four-for-12) to finish with 17 points, six boards, five assists and a steal. James Michael McAdoo had 19 points, seven boards, five assists and four steals.

UNC also bounced back in the rebounding category, and the decision to apply late-game pressure clearly worked, as Davidson had four turnovers in the last 5:35 of regulation and saw its late-game offensive efficiency impacted.

The Wildcats are ranked 174th in the latest college hoops power ratings by analyst Ken Pomeroy. (Louisville is no. 1, Syracuse is eighth, Duke is 15th, and UNC is 17th).

Williams, clearly furious with these Heels after the Texas meltdown, appeared drained after this tussle with Davidson.

“I feel like a train ran over me and then backed up and got me a second time, but it’s what it is. [I’m] proud of our team’s toughness. We went to the free-throw line and we made some free throws down the stretch. We shot them better under pressure than we did even earlier in the game. We went to a press two or three possessions and it got us some turnovers when it was a five or six-point game. [It] got us back in it. I’m just trying things, guys. It was a hard game.” said Williams afterwards.

The lingering issue of effective free-throw shooting could prove damaging long-term, although Williams is trying to address this area.

“He [Paige] steps up to the line and makes big free throws. J.P. [Tokoto] was five for six. James Michael [McAdoo] was nine for 14. We shot 200 of them on Thursday. One [player] shot 65 [percent], one shot 67, another shot 67 and another one shot 69. Everyone else was above 70, so we just have to do it in the game,” said Williams.

Tokoto, meanwhile, sees Carolina as capable of working through the drama and different issues swirling around this team.

“It hasn’t been too rough at all, we have tough guys on the team emotionally and physically. The thing with P.J. [Hairston], we waiting to hear about and once we got the news everyone was really sad. We talked to P.J., just us as players, and we figured some things out. We’re kind of using him as our fuel right now. Aside from the 5 a.m. practice, it’s just something we have to do. We have to be tough and keep playing hard. It’s not so much of running us to death that scares us, it’s disappointing him. We just have to keep playing hard,” said Tokoto.

Paige summed up a challenging, emotional stretch for the Heels. Paige shook off special defensive attention from Davidson.

“They played a little ‘box and one’ and ‘triangle and two’ on me and Leslie [McDonald]. We’ve seen it before. I was just exhausted. It was kind of a long week. We had a couple tough practices. We had a physical game against Texas. It took me a while to get into the game. I didn’t feel like myself for 30 minutes. It was tough, but we had huge a performance from J.P. [Tokoto]. Kennedy [Meeks] came in and gave us a big lift. It was a fun, all-together team win,” said Paige.

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N.C. State, picked to finish tenth in the ACC men’s basketball race, appears to have more firepower than previously expected as the teams approach conference play.

The Wolfpack celebrated an impact road win against Tennessee last week and capped off its pre-Christmas break with a 90-79 win at home over East Carolina.

ECU had been seeking the best start in school history, but, for the second time this season, the Pirates came up short on the road against an ACC club. ECU also lost to Duke earlier this season.

ECU’s primary problem here was State’s tremendous advantage in the post.

The Wolfpack, now 9-2, enjoyed a 58-26 edge in points in the paint.

State’s T.J. Warren, a 6-8, 215-pound sophomore who came in as the ACC’s leading scorer, blistered ECU for 32 points, eight boards and two assists. 7-1, 245-pound center Jordan Vandenberg also had an extremely productive night, pounding ECU inside with 18 points. Burly 6-9, 325-pound freshman forward Beejay Anya proved to be a game-changer with five blocks off the bench.

Akeem Richmond led ECU with 23 points.

The Wolfpack shot very well on offense, especially in the second half, when State connected on 63.3 percent of its shots. State also outrebounded ECU, 33-29, and had a strong 20-8 assist to turnover ratio.

This State team has already picked up its best nonconference road win under head coach Mark Gottfried. Warren has also emerged as one of the most efficient scorers in college hoops, and Gottfried appears to have assembled a sturdier-than-expected supporting cast around the Wolfpack sophomore.

ECU played hard and drew within five points, trailing 82-77, with 2:36 remaining on a 3-pointer from Richmond.

But State’s Ralston Turner, the LSU transfer, drained a key 3-pointer with 2:15 left, and after a missed 3-point attempt from Caleb White, Vandenburg powered inside for a layup with 1:38 remaining in the game.

State, which exposed ECU in the paint with a 26-8 edge in the second half, gets a chance to show just how far its has come this season with a severe test against No. 23 Missouri at home Dec. 28. From there, State goes to UNC-Greensboro on Dec. 30 before starting conference play at home against Pittsburgh Jan. 4.

Gottfried clearly relishes this quality start for the Wolfpack. And the Wolfpack appear to be meshing together as a collective unit with some valuable role players.

Vandenberg looks like an improved player. He had four blocked shots in State’s win over Tennessee. Vandenberg’s presence inside helps Warren.

“I think it helps him a lot. Number one, it puts him back in his natural position. During the first four games of the year, I was not comfortable playing our two young freshmen together. I played T.J. inside a lot more. With Jordan and even BeeJay coming along it allows T.J. to play on the wing. It allows him to get out on the break and defend a wing player instead of a post player. He is more comfortable there and we are a better team with that lineup,” Gottfried said.

State also started 9-2 a year ago, but that was a veteran team that had high expectations of doing real damage in the NCAA. That did not pan out, but expectations for this team were considerably lower in the preseason.

“Every year is different and every team is different. I do really like this team. I like the energy every day. There is a real eagerness in practice every day. I like that. It is fun. Some of that is just youthfulness. They are youthful and they are anxious to learn. I like that about our team. It’s different, obviously, last year was a whole different animal altogether. The most important thing right now is I think our team is improving. They are getting better,” said Gottfried.

STITH UPDATE: Former Brunswick High School standout Brandan Stith continues to make solid contributions for East Carolina.

Stith is averaging 9.5 rebounds per game and 7.5 ppg for the Pirates.

Stith is averaging 25.2 minutes per game and shooting 57.6 percent (34-for-59) from the field.

Stith played 22 minutes off the bench in Saturday’s loss to the Wolfpack. He went two-for-three from the field scored four points, but he also picked up three fouls. Stith had two defensive rebounds and added an assist, with one turnover, in limited duty.

Stith is the oldest son of former Virginia and NBA standout Bryant Stith, who is now on the Old Dominion basketball coaching staff under Jeff Jones, the ex-U.Va. coach.

ACC UPDATE: No. 8 Duke repelled No. 22 UCLA, 80-63 Thursday in New York. The Blue Devils, who return to action on Dec. 28 against Eastern Michigan, got a game-high 23 points from Jabari Parker in the win over the Bruins. Duke has 18 20-point games this season, including nine from Parker, five from Rodney Hood, two from Quinn Cook and one from Rasheed Sulaimon.

Meanwhile, VCU routed 82-52 in Richmond in the Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic. VCU, which also defeated Virginia, is 10-3, while the Hokies dropped to 7-4.

Sophomore Melvin Johnson’s career-high eight 3-pointers sparked a first-half run that reached 31-0 to lead the VCU men’s basketball team to a rout of in-state rival Tech. Johnson finished with a career-high 27 points on 8-of-13 shooting. The Rams’ high-pressure defense forced the Hokies into 27 turnovers, which led to a school record 22 steals for the Black & Gold.

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