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December 22, 2012CHAPEL HILL--- UNC gave its fans an early Christmas present Saturday afternoon by playing cohesively on both ends of the floor and making a bunch of shots on its way to a 97-63 triumph over visiting McNeese State.
The Tar Heels (9-3) settled the issue quickly with an impressive first half, building an 18-6 lead in the first eight minutes and stretching the lead beyond 30 points (54-23) by halftime.
After making just three three-pointers all night this past Wednesday in a loss at Texas, UNC came out Saturday and drained eight long balls in the first half alone, including three each from Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald.
Bullock, one of give guys in double figures for the Tar Heels, scored 17 points.
It was the fifth time in UNC's last ten outings that the Tar Heels made ten or more three-pointers.
"To me, the key to the game today was that we just made a lot of shots," said UNC head coach Roy Williams shortly afterwards. "Everybody has heard me say it a thousand times, but everything looks better when the ball goes in the basket - but we've got to have more balance inside."
The hot shooting against McNeese State showed what's possible, but it also made the loss to Texas a little more disappointing because UNC missed so many in that game.
"Yeah (the Texas loss is more frustrating after this win), because I think we can really shoot, and if you can really shoot then you are supposed to do it every night. It makes it more frustrating, but also we've got to establish more of an inside game to have balance," said Williams.
Just as impressively perhaps as its solid shooting in the first half, UNC's defense held McNeese State---which came in on a five-game winning streak having shot 50 percent or better in all five games---without a single three-pointer (0-4) over the game's first 20 minutes, and just 10-of-28 shooting (35.7 percent) on the whole in the first half.
"I go back to the defensive side of the ball more than anything because we've had trouble this year stopping dribble penetration," Williams said.
"I said, whenever the preseason press conference was, that I thought we would be a good defensive team, and we have not been so far. Teams haven't shot great percentages against us in most cases, but we haven't been a great defensive team. I think we did some things today that we can build on, particularly with supporting and containing the dribble."
With a 31-point halftime edge, Williams got a chance in the second half to play with the lineup in a relatively low-pressure situation, inserting guys in different situations to continue getting a feel for this young but talented Carolina squad.
But even with such a sizable halftime lead, the Tar Heels didn't seem to play complacent or relaxed over the game's final 20 minutes.
They stayed focused and determined, especially on the defensive end, keeping McNeese State from chipping into the lead.
Again UNC went smaller at times, as Williams inserted players like P.J. Hairston and J.P. Tokoto into the rotation together to give the team a spark.
Hairston nailed back-to-back three-pointers with just under 12 minutes to play, stretching what was a brief McNeese State push back into a 71-42 Tar Heel advantage, and the Cowboys never made a legitimate threat beyond that point.
Hairston wound up leading the Tar Heels in scoring with 20 points.
"A win always makes you feel better. The main thing is that we did better this game and we played with more heart and we played together as a team," said Hairston.
"Against Texas I think we tried to do a little too much on our own and tried to force shots. Texas was converting on our turnovers and getting fast break points off of bad shots."
The Tar Heels kept playing hard down the stretch despite its large lead, as a Brice Johnson alley-oop slam dunk off a transition loft from Dexter Strickland gave Carolina a 95-59 cushion with under two minutes to play.
"At halftime I told the team, 'We can't come out in the second half and let the other team score 60 points in the second half', like we have been doing. I said, 'We need to keep up the intensity on defense and try to contain their two best players and we'll be fine.' We came out in the second half and did it," said Hairston.
"I think we just had a lot more focus (in this game)," added Marcus Paige, who had a stellar nine-to-zero assist-to-turnover ratio in this contest.
"We didn't play even close to what we're capable of playing (against Texas). We really wanted to come out and set the tone early at Texas and that didn't happen. We're trying to come together as a team and really buy in, like Coach has been saying these last couple days."
With a less-than-capacity crowd onhand that was particularly noticeable for its lack of students, the only drama at the end of this one was whether or not the Tar Heels could eclipse the 100-point barrier for the popular Bojangle's dollar sausage biscuit promotion.
That didn't happen, but as Saturday's outcome showed, this is a North Carolina team that can be very dangerous when they're making shots and playing effective defense.
It was McNeese State of course, not an ACC or ranked non-conference opponent, but the Cowboys came into this contest with a top 50 RPI and some confidence that it might spring the upset.
Carolina abruptly killed that notion with its solid start, and surely the Tar Heels will be looking to get off to similarly fast starts when it returns to action after Christmas.
UNC plays again Saturday, December 29 at home against UNLV---the team that handed Carolina its first loss a year ago---and then they open up Atlantic Coast Conference play on Sunday, January 6 in Charlottesville against Virginia.