It took less than 72 hours for No. 5 North Carolina to rebound from its home loss to No. 20 Duke on Wednesday night. Playing host to No. 11 Miami, the Tar Heels simply overwhelmed the Hurricanes, 96–71, in the lone regular-season meeting between the two schools.
Their reward is sole possession of first place in the ACC with just four games remaining before the conference tournament.
Led by Brice Johnson’s 16th double double of the season (16 points, 15 rebounds) six Tar Heels scored in double figures, including two off the bench. They shared the ball well, assisting on 21 of 39 field goals, as nine players scored between six and 16 points.
Three-point shooting has the potential to be an Achilles’ heel for North Carolina, which entered the game with one of the 40 worst three-point shooing percentages in the country (30.9%). The Tar Heels endured a 3 of 17 performance from the perimeter and a 1 of 13 night in losses to Louisville and Duke, but at least for one game, they put those concerns to rest.
The Heels were 9 of 20 from behind the arc on Saturday as Miami struggled to get going from deep. The Hurricanes shot 6 of 19 on threes, but four of the makes came when Miami was trailing by at least 23 points in the second half.
North Carolina played like a national title contender while it ran Miami off the same floor that a short-handed Duke team had won on just days earlier. The timing of the Tar Heels’ turnaround couldn’t have been better.
Entering Saturday, six teams were within one game of first place in the ACC, with North Carolina and Miami tied atop the conference.
North Carolina now has a little breathing room in its pursuit of the ACC regular season crown, but it can ill-afford a late-season collapse. The Tar Heels still have road games against North Carolina State, No. 7 Virginia and the return game at Duke, in addition to a home bout against Syracuse on senior night.
Miami, Virginia and Louisville, tied for second with 10–4 records in conference play, have equally challenging but opportunistic remaining schedules. But after Saturday, North Carolina is in control of its own regular-season destiny.
Three days after watching Grayson Allen and the Blue Devils celebrate an upset victory in the Dean Smith Center, North Carolina was able to pull its starters on Saturday as the players at the end of the Tar Heels’ bench fought for points in garbage time.