North Carolina's Brice Johnson, rear, guards Virginia's Akil Mitchell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Gerry Broome

North Carolina's Brice Johnson, rear, guards Virginia's Akil Mitchell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Tar Heels turn half-court offense into a strength

By Nick Piotrowicz

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CHAPEL HILL – North Carolina coach Roy Williams was asked what is making his team play as a unit in his postgame press conference after Saturday’s win against Virginia.

Williams paused for a few seconds as the room became quiet, then delivered his one-word answer: “Fear.”

The response drew laughs from those in attendance – though there likely is some truth to Williams’ response – yet whatever the reasons, North Carolina is indeed a better half-court team than it was even a month ago.

Williams chided his team earlier in the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule for its desire to revert to one-on-one basketball on offense.

That wasn’t the case Saturday as the Tar Heels broke down and embarrassed the Cavaliers, the best defense in the ACC. Virginia had not allowed 70 points in a game until playing North Carolina, which scored 93 points, the most against Virginia in three years.

“I think our guys are intelligent. When we play poorly, we come back and we show it to them on the tape,” Williams said. “If you’re not passing the ball, not sharing the ball, you’re not going to be a very good basketball team.”

The numbers back up the 25th-year head coach. When the Tar Heels (17-8, 7-5) record 19 or more assists, they’re 10-1. Out of eight losses, six featured 13 or fewer assists, and four had 10 or fewer.

North Carolina even bounced between good and bad in single games.

Against Maryland, North Carolina scored 42 points in the first half and looked every bit of the top-10 ranking they boasted earlier in the season. In the second, though, the Tar Heels shot 24 percent and scored 20 points, letting the Terrapins back into the game though hanging on to the lead.

North Carolina notched 18 assists from seven different players against Virginia, consistently finding good shots against a defense that had been allowing just more than 50 points per game.

“I don’t even know if it’s selfishness, I just think we move the ball better,” North Carolina freshman point guard Marcus Paige said. “Guys aren’t holding it, dribbling it 15 times in one spot. The ball’s just moving more freely, quicker, changing sides of the floor. Guys are passing up open looks for even better looks, and that usually means a lot of good things when you move the ball on offense the way we have been.”

It has taken patience on the part of Williams, the staff and the North Carolina veterans.

As opposed to last season – a loaded squad which had four future first rounders in the 2012 NBA Draft – North Carolina can’t obtain any shot it wants almost all the time.

It took a lineup tweak, too, as P.J. Hairston was placed in the starting five, giving North Carolina four peremiter players. Hairston scored 29 points Saturday as the Tar Heels’ offense hummed regardless of age and experience.

In the film room, as senior guard Dexter Strickland put it, “We were seeing what we’re doing obviously wasn’t working.”

The Tar Heels knew what they really needed was time.

“With me being a senior, you have to understand freshmen coming in don’t have comprehension what’s going on,” Strickland said. “They have to get better, they have to have more experience, how to play in a system and stuff like that. You can’t get frustrated because that’s not going to help your game.”

In the aformentioned Mayland game, the Tar Heels lost the ball three separate times on reckless drives to the hoop. On one play, Hairston was set up for an 3-pointer as the UNC bench screamed for him to shoot the ball.

He passed.

Against Virginia, though, the decisions were on point. A first half sequence saw Paige match a Virginia triple with one of his own after finding space.

The next possession, after excellent ball movement, Paige was alone at the 3-point line, waited for the defense to scramble to him, then found an open Hairston, who canned the shot from behind the arc.

“The other thing is you have to realize your strengths and play to them and stay away from your weaknesses,” Williams said. We’re better off moving the ball, moving the ball, moving the ball, then driving to the basket as opposed to just trying to drive it to the basket right from the start.”

With at least seven games remaining, North Carolina, almost always a run-first team under Williams, might have an unexpected hope: Winning games with control instead of speed and power.

And, of course, a little bit of fear.

Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@