North Carolina has played three straight close games in Chapel Hill, enduring plenty of excitement on and off the court. That shouldn't be the case Friday night against Northern Kentucky.
The Tar Heels face the Norse for the first time in their second-to-last tuneup before beginning their ACC schedule on Jan. 5.
A 97-85 overtime win Saturday against Davidson followed a three-point loss to Texas on Dec. 18 and a five-point win over Kentucky on Dec. 14.
Mix in the reinstatement of Leslie McDonald prior to the Texas loss and news that the school would not seek reinstatement for last year's leading scorer P.J. Hairston, and the Tar Heels (8-3) are in need of some smooth sailing.
"That's about as much drama as you can get in one week as a team, as a young team," leading scorer Marcus Paige said. "But I think we handled it well. We understood we had a four- or five-day break coming up so we just had to get through this game and get to the break so we could rejuvenate and come back and be ready to go."
Paige struggled early against Davidson but got it together in the second half and overtime, scoring 11 of his 17 points in the extra period as the Tar Heels outscored the Wildcats 18-6.
J.P. Tokoto led the way with 22 points, 11 rebounds and five steals, all career highs. The 6-foot-5 sophomore is averaging 10.7 points and has started every game for the Tar Heels after averaging 2.6 points in limited minutes as a freshman.
"My role has been the same: attack the boards, be an offensive threat when needed, be a defensive stopper for coach and the team," Tokoto said. "Whatever we need, be that person. I had it in my mind I was going to be it with P.J. or without him."
The team credited a defensive switch as the main reason it was able to overcome a five-point deficit on its home court. Down 49-44 early in the second half, coach Roy Williams went to a full-court press, and it took less than a minute for the Tar Heels to take the lead.
"It was huge because we were able to force them into turnovers," forward James Michael McAdoo told the team's official website. "We scrambled them, especially with the full-court press. I don't think we did that one time last year, but we've really worked on it this year because of our versatility. We can switch all the way down the line, and it led to some easy baskets."
North Carolina had its best night of the season from the foul line, hitting 34 of 47 after entering the game shooting just 59.6 percent as a team.
Northern Kentucky (4-7) has won three in a row after a 72-65 home win over Navy on Saturday continued to restore some optimism after a 1-7 start.
Guard Todd Johnson and center Jalen Billups each scored 16 points while Jordan Jackson and Tyler White chipped in 11 as the Norse came back from an 11-point first-half deficit.
"It says a great deal about our guys that they rallied from another double-digit deficit," Norse coach Dave Bezold told the team's official website. "They don't give up, and they find a way to win. Jalen was a force inside in the second half and made big plays. Todd Johnson and Tyler White also hit some clutch 3-pointers."
The Norse have lost their last two contests against ranked opponents by an average of 28.5 points, including a 93-63 loss at then-No. 1 Kentucky on Nov. 10.