ATLANTA — When Coby White gets the ball in his hands and starts pushing it upcourt, the North Carolina basketball team can resemble a group of sprinters running a 100-meter relay.
That fast pace was especially important Tuesday against a Georgia Tech team whose packed in zone defense is formidable enough to have given Duke fits three days ago.
White reminded his teammates of the need for speed at their pregame meal.
It took a full half for the Tar Heels to get out of the starting blocks and start running. But once they did, they easily beat the Yellow Jackets to the finish line, riding an impressive spurt to start the second half and some hot long range shooting by White and Cam Johnson to a 77-54 victory at McCamish Pavilion.
“Their defense is kind of funny, but it’s hard to score in the halfcourt setting,” White said of Tech’s zone. “So if we were able to push out and get up the court before they set up, it would make it a lot easier.”
UNC had a hard time doing that during the opening 20 minutes, thanks in part to eight turnovers a heavy reliance on the 3-point shot.
And yet despite missing five of their first six field goal attempts and scoring only nine fast break points, the Tar Heels were still able to build a seven-point lead thanks to a combination of their own defense and Tech’s inability to score from close range.
That advantage quickly grew once coach Roy Williams’ ninth-ranked team picked up the pace to start the second half.
Johnson, who led the way with 22 points on 4 of 6 shooting from 3-point range, started the game breaking onslaught with a pair of long jumpers from well beyond the arc. White later hit a pair of 3-pointers himself before punctuating a 25-5 run by feeding Johnson for a fastbreak layup that expanded the UNC lead to 56-29 with 13½ minutes remaining.
The Yellow Jackets (11-10, 3-5) never recovered.
“That was real big,” junior guard Brandon Robinson said of his team’s fast second half start. “It took the life right out of them.”
The run was similar to the 20-0 first half spurt that helped UNC break open its game against Virginia Tech last Tuesday.
After scoring just 31 points in the entire first half, it took just over eight minutes for the Tar Heels (16-4, 6-1 ACC) to match that total after halftime on the way to their fourth straight conference win.
As was the case against the Hokies, the catalyst was White — who tied his career high with eight assists while also hitting five 3-pointers and scoring 19 points.
“He’s getting better every single game,” Williams said of his freshman point guard. “When his shot goes in he’s really good. When he’s 8-2 assist-to-error ratio, that’s really good too.”
Although the Tar Heels’ effort was far from perfect against a team in the bottom half of the ACC standings — they turned the ball over 20 times, scored just one second chance point and got outscored 36-22 in the paint — it was encouraging nonetheless because of the timing of the result.
Earlier this season, UNC followed up two of its best performances in wins against Gonzaga and NC State with two of their worst in losses to Kentucky and Louisville. This time, the Tar Heels broke the pattern by building on last week’s blowout of Virginia Tech with a workmanlike victory.
About the only downside to the game was an ankle injury suffered by reserve guard Leaky Black that had him leaving for the team bus on crutches, wearing a walking boot on his left foot.
“We knew that there’s no days off in the ACC,” Johnson said. “We got off to a little lackluster start, but I think we dug in and really made a difference.”
Making the victory all the more impressive is that the Tar Heels did it with two seniors Luke Maye and Kenny Williams, two of their best, most reliable players, combining to go just 3 for 14 from the floor with eight turnovers between them.
“I’ve never see Luke Maye play a game like that, so he got that out of his system,” Roy Williams said afterward. “And we still won.”