CHAPEL HILL — All the elements for disaster were there for the North Carolina basketball team Tuesday.
A sparse crowd so small those in the upper deck of the Smith Center were invited to move downstairs.
A high-profile game against a top-five opponent coming up next.
A talented, veteran mid-major opponent that already has a win against an ACC team.
The scenario became even more precarious when Furman, led by a hot-shooting guard from the Triangle, played the Tar Heels even over the opening 20 minutes. But Armando Bacot scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half and UNC tightened up its defense to avoid the upset and pull away for a 74-61 victory.
“We came into this game ready to go,” said Bacot, who also pulled down a team-leading 12 rebounds and helped the Tar Heels outscore the Paladins 19-0 on second-chance points. “Furman is a pretty good team. They’ve got a lot of good scorers, so we knew we had to lock in.
“The way they can shoot the ball, we knew we couldn’t lay an egg because they’re definitely a team that can sneak a win.”
It’s not as if the Tar Heels (8-2) laid an egg in the first half, at least on the offensive end. With Dawson Garcia and Brady Manek doing most of the damage, combining for 27 points on 10-of-14 shooting with eight rebounds, UNC shot 46.7% from the floor and was nearly as good (3 of 7) from 3-point range.
But because Furman (7-4) was even better, shooting 53% both overall and beyond the arc, the Tar Heels found themselves having to come from behind to tie the game at 39 heading into halftime,
It was a familiar position for coach Hubert Davis’ team, which was either tied or within two points of its opponent for the third time in its last four games. And just as it did in wins against Michigan and Georgia Tech, UNC was a different team in the second half.
Not only did the Tar Heels outscore the Paladins 35-22, shooting better than 50% from the floor after halftime for the fourth straight game, they also limited Furman to 28.1%. That included a 2-of-18 performance on 3-pointers, a major factor in UNC’s ability to hold graduate guard Alex Hunter to just four second-half points.
Hunter, a Raleigh native from Leesville Road High School, scored 17 points in the first half to finish with 21.
According to Davis, the difference in the two halves was toughness.
“One of the things I said at halftime, I felt like they were more physical than us on both ends of the floor, so from a defensive standpoint that had to change. We had to be the aggressor,” the rookie UNC coach said of a Furman team that won at Louisville on Nov. 12. “We had to be in the passing lanes, we had to get through screens, we had to be contesting shots, and I felt we really did that.
“I felt like in the second half we changed. We changed the way we were playing defense on (Hunter) with a sense of urgency. We changed in closing out the shooters and making it harder for them in the post. I felt like our willingness to change was the biggest factor in our playing better in the second half.”
On the other end of the floor, guards Caleb Love and RJ Davis picked up their games as well. While neither shot particularly well, they combined for 11 assists and only three turnovers while pushing tempo and allowing their bigger teammates to take advantage of their size inside.
Garcia responded with 20 points and 10 rebounds, his second straight game with 20 or more points. Manek added 13 points. Between them and Bacot, they combined to make 20 of their 33 attempts from the floor.
“The emphasis was to attack the rim through post penetration and offensive rebounds, and we did a good job of that,” Dawson said. “Bigs are a strength for us, and we wanted to take advantage of that.”
The win extended the Tar Heels’ winning streak to five since returning home from a disastrous trip to Connecticut, setting them up for a showdown with No. 4 UCLA in Las Vegas on Saturday. After UNC suffered back-to-back lopsided defeats to Purdue and Tennessee at the Hall of Fame Tip-off, the game against the Bruins is another chance at making a statement nationally before the start of conference play.
It’s an opportunity Davis reminded his team about in the postgame locker room on Tuesday.
“After he finished his speech, he just said, ‘You know what’s next. Vegas. UCLA,’” Garcia said. “We’re all excited, and we’ll all be very prepared for it.”