CHAPEL HILL – North Carolina point Marcus Paige took note when he saw a bracket projection.
In the preview, Virginia was part of the final 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament.
North Carolina was not.
“I thought that was pretty interesting,” said a smirking Paige.
Time is running out on the Tar Heels.
They played like they know it.
North Carolina played arguably its best game of 2013, making an elite Virginia defense look below average in a 91-83 victory Saturday at the Dean E. Smith Center.
“We made some shots (Saturday), there’s no question about that,” North Carolina Roy Williams said. “It’s a good feeling right now, and we needed to have a good feeling in that locker room after playing at Miami and at Duke.”
North Carolina (17-8, 7-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) came into the contest having lost consecutively to the Hurricanes and Blue Devils, though Williams saw promise in the loss to the Blue Devils.
He stuck with the same guard-oriented starting lineup – keeping P.J. Hairston in Desmond Hubert’s place – and the move paid dividends.
Hairston scored a game-high 29 points and added seven rebounds for the Tar Heels, who won comfortably despite Virginia (18-7, 8-4) shooting 58 percent for the game.
The Cavaliers made 12 of their first 14 shots and made eight 3-pointers in the first half alone, yet needed Jontel Evans’ running 3-pointer at the first half buzzer to tie the game after 20 minutes.
The Tar Heels were better suited to play at the game’s pace than the Cavaliers, who had not allowed 70 points in a game before letting the Tar Heels score 91 points.
“We started the game well and played it early, but got away with how we needed to play in this environment to be successful,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.
Virginia guard Joe Harris continued his hot streak, scoring 27 points on 10-for 13 shooting, but the Tar Heels mostly limited the damage of his teammates.
Guard Paul Jesperson was held scoreless in the second half after hitting three 3-pointers in the first half, and fellow starter Justin Anderson scored two points in the final 20 minutes.
While Virginia had a 10-point lead eight minutes into the game, North Carolina remained confident the game was being played at its pace, and Virginia wouldn’t be able to keep up.
“We didn’t want to play a game in the 50s,” Paige said. “That’s where Virginia thrives. We just tried to push the ball when we could, and we made a lot of shots, particularly in the second half.”
Four Tar Heels scored in double digits and seven players recorded at least one assist as Hairston’s addition to the lineup has been well-received by the team.
As they continue to play more minutes with the starting five of Paige, Hairston, Reggie Bullock, James Michael McAdoo and Dexter Strickland, the Tar Heels are finding the lineup suits them.
“I think it creates more space,” Bullock said. “It gives (Hairston) the ability to drive the ball, get to the free throw line, knock down the 3. He (has) got a scoring mentality, so that’s what he does. When we added him to the rotation, it was great.”
Even with the small lineup, North Carolina won the rebounding battle, 33-24.
Williams said that his team has to convince him to stay with the lineup of four perimeter players through rebounding.
If North Carolina is going to play small, it must show it won’t lose anything on the glass, Williams said.
“One time James Michael shot the ball from the baseline and we had nobody go to the board,” Williams said. “I said guys, you small guys that like this small lineup, I cannot do that if we don’t have you guys getting the board when James Michael shoots. We can’t tell him not to shoot.
“... The rebounding part of it, I think, you guys have heard me say it before, I think it’s the most crucial part of the game.”
Bennett pointed to two reasons why his team lost: Points off turnovers and second chance points.
Virginia turned over the ball 14 times, and the Tar Heels were able turn them into 16 points.
And to Williams’ pleasure, the Tar Heels scored 13 points thanks to offensive rebounds.
“We’re a good rebounding team,” Hairston said. “We’ve always been a good rebounding team, we just have yet to really prove it.”
Williams indicated Hairston likely will stay in the starting lineup, and the Tar Heels will keep playing with their small five-man unit.
Even with the lineup change, Williams wasn’t taking credit for the Tar Heels playing well Saturday.
“Coaching’s overrated,” Williams said. “When you make shots, the game’s a lot easier.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com