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Tar Heels Head Into January at .500

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina is at just .500 in earlyJanuary for the first time in 48 years. But there is hope the TarHeels can overcome one of the more disastrous starts in schoolhistory.

Stunning season-opening home losses to Hampton and Davidson ledto an 0-3 hole, a loss of confidence, grumbling fans and thoughtsof what No. 1 Duke would do to this group of fumbling and bumblingTar Heels.

Angry and confused, baby blue supporters wondered if NorthCarolina could stay within 40 points of the Blue Devils, notwhether the Tar Heels would crack the top 25 by season's end.

Now, a modest three-game winning streak in late December thatincluded victories over lightweights North Carolina A&T and TexasA&M has the team at 5-5 heading into the bulk of the Atlantic CoastConference schedule.

North Carolina is still a fragile team, but better shooting andballhandling and improved play by three freshmen have coach MattDoherty cautiously optimistic before Saturday's game against No. 23Wake Forest.

"I am back shaving with steel razors and my wife is giving me areal steak knife and not the plastic one," Doherty said. "I feela lot better because I think our team is playing with confidence,they're playing loose, they're executing better and they've playedhard."

The last time North Carolina was at .500 heading into Januarywas during the 1953-54 season, when the Tar Heels were 3-3. Theteam then won four in a row before finishing 11-10.

Doherty, a member of North Carolina's 1982 national title team,is still a young head coach, and certainly doesn't have theexperience of predecessors Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge.

But Doherty didn't push the panic button when the young TarHeels got off a rocky start in December and fell to 2-5 after aloss to College of Charleston on Dec. 21. He did what Smith andGuthridge would have done - let seniors Jason Capel and Kris Langlead.

"I feel like I've handled this well," Doherty said. "Do Ilike losing? No. But through that stretch the important thing wasto keep the team positive and to keep the team together. I thoughtwe did that - me, the staff, the seniors, the other players. Jasonand Kris deserve most of the credit.

North Carolina's two major streaks - 27 straight NCAA tournamentbids and 31 consecutive 20-win seasons - are far from guaranteed,but they're not as farfetched as a month ago.

"This winning streak has given us a reason to believe, it hasgiven us a breath of fresh air," Capel said. "We've worked sohard and now we're seeing the benefits from it. To have a youngteam, to be able to overcome and stick together and believe in eachother and to grow as a team, it's a good feeling."

In December, Doherty also made a few subtle moves that have paidoff.

He trimmed his offense to make things simpler for his youngerplayers, switched freshman Jawad Williams from the outside to underthe bucket to take advantage of his rebounding ability, and helped3-point ace Brian Morrison regain his confidence.

Doherty also developed some depth when Lang went down with aknee injury.

"The thing that jumps out has been our unselfishness," Dohertysaid. "We're moving the basketball, limiting our turnovers andmaking shots.

"You know, we lost our first game and we've got a lot of youngguys. They got nervous and that's natural. They weren't sure wherethey were supposed to be, they weren't sure of their teammates. Wejust had to get more comfortable with each other and moreconfident. We tried to give them more freedom on the floor and theyare enjoying that."

North Carolina's season could turn one way or the other again inthe next seven days, considering the Tar Heels play the DemonDeacons, No. 8 Maryland and No. 4 Virginia.

"I'm not saying we've cleared through the woods at all, andthis league can be brutal," Doherty said. "You can play well inthe ACC and still lose."

"Everybody goes through slumps and this team went through aslump," added Capel. "Hopefully, we've shot our way out of it.We're taking good shots now and we're setting each other up forgood shots. When you do that good things are going to happen."