CHAPEL HILL — When Roy Williams reluctantly committed to going with a small lineup four games ago, he did so with one caveat.
“I basically told them that if we’re going to play small, you better rebound,” the North Carolina basketball coach said after his team’s win against Boston College on Jan. 9.
It’s a message his Tar Heels apparently received loud and clear.
In those four games since the switch from Williams’ favorite inside-out style, UNC has outrebounded its opponents by a margin of 17.8 per game while scoring an average of 19 second-chance points.
That rebounding advantage proved to be its saving grace against Georgia Tech on Saturday, as it helped the defending national champions survive a poor shooting performance and 14 turnovers for an 80-66 win at Smith Center.
“You’ve heard me say for 15 years how important I think rebounding the ball is,” Williams said. “We work on it every day and emphasize it every day. It’s a huge emphasis for us. Usually you do pretty well the things you emphasize most.”
The Tar Heels (16-4, 5-2 ACC) needed to be strong on the boards the way they shot the ball Saturday. Four days after hitting nearly 50 percent from 3-point range in a win against Clemson, they made just five of their 21 attempts against the taller Yellow Jackets.
Joel Berry and Kenny Williams, the team’s two most prolific perimeter marksmen, went 1 for 12 between them from beyond the arc.
Many of those misses, however, turned into effective passes thanks to the work of Luke Maye and Theo Pinson underneath.
The duo combined for eight offensive rebounds, many of which they converted into baskets on their way to double-doubles. Freshman big man Sterling Manley also contributed a pair of putbacks to help UNC produce a decisive 26-4 scoring edge on second-chance points.
The Tar Heels finished the night with 19 offensive rebounds on the way to a 46-25 overall advantage on the glass — despite playing a majority of the game with three guards and a wing, along with the 6-foot-8 Maye as an undersized center.
“They’re very good at going all out to the basket,” said Georgia Tech’s Ben Lammers, one of two big men in the Yellow Jackets’ lineup. Both he and fellow inside threat Abdoulaye Gueye finished with 12 points.
“You go against some teams that only send their post player, but they send at least three guys. Or at least it feels like that. I’ll box out one guy, but then another one will come flying out right after that from the side. It’s hard to box out a guy you don’t see coming. They’re very good at swarming the ball.”
Maye led UNC with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Pinson recorded his second career double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, to go along with four assists and three steals.
As instrumental as they were to the Tar Heels’ cause, it was a pivotal late first half contribution off the bench by the 6-foot-11 Manley that finally helped UNC gain control following a disastrous 12-possession stretch in which it committed 10 turnovers.
Manley scored seven straight points to highlight a 15-4 run that helped the Tar Heels turn a four-point deficit into a 35-28 halftime advantage.
“I thought Sterling gave us a huge lift in the first half,” Williams said.
Despite seeing limited playing time because of the switch to a small lineup, Manley has been playing well of late. He finished with nine points and three rebounds
Saturday marked the second straight game in which Manley, not fellow freshman Garrison Brooks, was the first big off the bench. His 12 minutes of action were four more than Brooks.
“It felt good just doing what needed to be done,” Manley said. “We just needed a spark, someone to get on the boards and be active.”
Manley’s spark carried over into the second half, which saw the Tar Heels open up as much as a 17-point lead before the Yellow Jackets (10-9, 3-3) took a page from Clemson’s book and got hot from the outside.
With sophomore Josh Okogie scoring 18 points and freshman point guard Jose Alvarado hitting for 17 on the strength of four 3-pointers, Tech got as close as 54-49 with 10:27 remaining. UNC was able to hold off the charge on the strength of Berry’s free-throw shooting, Cameron Johnson’s shooting and that offensive board dominance finally put the pesky visitors away.
Berry and Johnson each scored 16 points. Berry did most of his damage from the free-throw line, where he went 9 of 10. Johnson was one of the few Tar Heels that shot well, going 4 of 6 from the floor in the second half and 6 of 12 overall.
UNC shot 42.4 percent (28 of 66) as a team.
“Hopefully we’ll shoot the ball better,” Roy Williams said. “Because I think we could be as good of a shooting team as I’ve ever had. But we didn’t show it today.”