CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s offense proved explosive as its game with Alabama-Birmingham progressed Saturday night.
The Tar Heels’ defense? Well, it caused a different kind of explosion.
Playing without injured point guard Marcus Paige, No. 14 UNC made 72 percent of its shots in the second half to pull away and trounce the Blazers 102-84 at the Smith Center.
Playing its first game since an 83-59 loss at No. 1 Indiana on Tuesday night, UNC soared behind Leslie McDonald, who scored 24 points and dished out five assists in his first career start.
“Offensively, we did some nice things,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We have some guys that can shoot the ball.”
Williams wasn’t tossing niceties, though, about his team’s defense. His ire reached a boiling point with 13:19 play when, after a UNC basket, the Tar Heels (6-2) were slow getting back on defense. UAB’s Terence Jones sank an open 3-pointer to slice UNC’s lead to 59-52.
Williams called timeout while angrily taking his jacket off and slamming it to the bench. While screaming at his players, Williams slammed a clipboard down and sent a pen that had been attached flying.
“If I say pick up the other team’s point guard at the 10-second line, that’s what I mean,” Williams said after the game. “If I tell my 3-year-old grandson to pick up that cup, that’s what I mean. He’s going to pick up that cup. Just do what I tell you to do.”
UAB (4-4) shot a miserable 34.4 percent in the first half but only trailed 35-29. Like the Tar Heels, the Blazers heated up after halftime. UAB shot 47.7 percent and made 7 of 15 shots from 3-point range.
UNC saw its lead cut to two points early in the second half before building a 64-54 lead on a P.J. Hairston 3-pointer not long after Williams’ timeout tirade.
UAB sliced the deficit to six points at 65-59 with 11:19 to play when Rod Rucker scored inside and added a free throw.
But UNC took off again to take control of the game. Dexter Strickland and Reggie Bullock had 3-pointers during a 12-2 run that extended the Tar Heels edge to a comfortable 77-61.
The Tar Heels shot 70 percent or better in a half for the first time since 2008.
Filling in at point guard for Paige, who injured his shoulder in practice this week, Strickland scored 11 points and had a career-best nine assists.
“I work out with these guys all the time and I see where they like to shoot,” Strickland said. “It think it was very important for me to get the ball to that area so they can get their shots off.”
Williams didn’t learn that Paige would not be available for the game until the team’s shoot-around earlier Saturday. He had to wait to tell Strickland, who was working on a class project and didn’t attend the shoot-around.
Williams called the news a shock, saying the medical report on Paige wasn’t good.
“He couldn’t do a cross-over dribble because he couldn’t move his arm that way,” Williams said. “He couldn’t throw a chest pass. I’ve never liked point guards who couldn’t dribble or pass.”
But he lauded Strickland for handling his new duties well.
“It’s a hard thing to find out you are going to play, instead of 6 or 8 minutes, to play 25 or 29 minutes,” Williams said.
As for the team’s defense, Strickland said the only thing that will help is to work on it more.
“I can’t make any excuses,” Strickland said. “We just have to do better and work as a team. All five guys have to get back and play good team basketball.”
Saturday night’s game marked the return to Chapel Hill of former UNC assistant coach Jerod Haase, who is in his first season as UAB’s head coach. Haase admitted coaching at the Smith Center against the Tar Heels was unusual.
“To say that it was strange playing against North Carolina is an understatement,” Haase said. “I never knew what it would feel like to be that way. The whole evening and afternoon, it was just a little bit odd.”
No. 14 UNC 102, UAB 84
Percentages: FG .421, FT .727. 3-Point Goals: 12-27, .444 (Swing 5-5, T. Jones 3-8, Tyler 2-5, Williams 2-6, I. Jones 0-1, Rucker 0-1, Taylor 0-1). Team Rebounds: 7. Blocked Shots: 0. Turnovers: 18 (Rucker 6, T. Jones 5, Purifoy 2, Alihodzic 2, Swing 2, Taylor). Steals: 12 (T. Jones 3, Williams 2, Alihodzic 2, Swing 2, Taylor, Tyler, Rucker).
Percentages: FG .529, FT .857. 3-Point Goals: 10-23, .435 (McDonald 5-8, Bullock 3-5, Hairston 2-7, Manor 0-1, Tokoto 0-1, Strickland 0-1). Team Rebounds: 2. Blocked Shots: 4 (Johnson 2, Simmons, James). Turnovers: 20 (McAdoo 6, Strickland 4, Hairston 3, Johnson 2, Davis 2, McDonald, James, Bullock). Steals: 5 (Bullock 3, Tokoto, McAdoo).
A—15,906. Officials—Les Jones, William Covington, Alan Spainhour.