Its hard to believe now, but the North Carolina Tar Heels started off 11-7, with a pitiful 1-4 record in ACC play. The Tar Heels of the first half of the season lost to UAB, Belmont, and Texas, needed overtime to beat Davidson, and fell to ACC foes Wake Forest, Miami, Virginia and Syracuse. Yes, the Heels of the first half of the season showed flashes of prowess in wins over Michigan State, Louisville, and Kentucky, but the overall quality of play led to questions of whether the Heels of the first half would make the NCAA tournament.
But somewhere around when the calendar changed from January to February, the Tar Heels of the second half of the season came alive and sparked a nine game win streak in the ACC. Those Tar Heels beat Notre Dame, Florida State and Pittsburgh, while jumping back into the upper ranks of the ACC standings. The high point of the new UNC Basketball team might have come against Duke and Wake Forest last week, when UNC beat its arch-rival and dropped 105 points on Wake Forest, a team that they had lost to earlier in the season 73-67.
The gap between the Tar Heels that lost to Wake Forest by six points and the team that beat them by over 30 is huge, and the transformation great. But just when did that transformation occur? When did UNC go from being a bubble team to a possible 4th or 5th seed in an NCAA bracket? That change came on Sunday January 26th, against Clemson.
The Tar Heels needed a win in the worst ways on that Sunday against Clemson, and had some extra motivation if reversing a 1-4 start in the ACC wasn’t enough. UNC Basketball had beaten Clemson at home 56 straight times coming into the 2014 matchup at the Dean Dome, and nobody wanted to see that streak end or the Tar Heels go to 1-5 in the ACC.
It was the ultimate tipping point for the Tar Heels. A win would keep the streak alive and also give Carolina the win is so desperately needed in the ACC. A loss would end the streak and send UNC into the dark depths of the ACC standings that it never would have been able to break out of.
In that game against Clemson, it was the effort of James Michael McAdoo and the entire team that made the difference. UNC won by 19 against a pretty good Clemson team that is now ranked 5th in the ACC. It was the way they won, with JMM and Marcus Paige leading the way, with effort and defensive toughness setting the tone, that would set up the run for the rest of the season.
After that game, as the media pundits say, the rest was history. UNC survived a snow storm in Atlanta to beat Georgia Tech. The Heels jumped out to an early lead against NC State and never looked back. Then Maryland, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh all fell to the streaking Tar Heels. The Duke win put Carolina at 9-4 in the ACC, and the Wake Forest bombardment was the cherry on top.
When fans and experts alike go back and look at this season of Carolina basketball, they will find a tale of two teams and two different seasons. The first half of the year sported a team with talent and flashes of greatness, but no consistent effort or constant identity. The second half team found that identity against Clemson in front of a home crowd nervous with the streak and the season on the line. The team delivered against Clemson that day, and that win set the team up for the huge renaissance that came in the current nine game win streak.