November 10, 2015

While North Carolina's late collapse in its highest profile game remains the talk of college basketball, Miami continues to climb the ACC ladder with very little fanfare.

The 11th-ranked Hurricanes won't be overlooked anymore during a grueling four-game stretch beginning with Saturday's visit to the No. 5 Tar Heels that will give the winner sole possession of the conference lead.

''I know we're tied for first place, but we've got to treat it like any other game and not let anything else get in our heads," Miami senior Angel Rodriguez said. "You've got to play defense and put the ball in the basket.''

Three games out of first place to start February, Miami (21-4, 10-3) has caught the Tar Heels in the standings by winning five straight and capitalizing on the latter's recent struggles. After starting 8-0 against a relatively soft portion of its league schedule, North Carolina (21-5, 10-3) has lost tougher matchups with Louisville, Notre Dame and Duke over a five-game span.

The Hurricanes have faced only one upper-tier opponent during their surge, defeating Notre Dame at home Feb. 3. The slate is about to become substantially heavier, though, with the Tar Heels the first of four consecutive opponents they'll face who are currently ranked.

Miami hosts No. 7 Virginia, just a half-game out of first place, on Monday before a home date with No. 18 Louisville and a road rematch with the 19th-ranked Fighting Irish.

''These are very challenging games, but ones you look forward to," coach Jim Larranaga said.

For the Tar Heels, the immediate challenge is putting behind Wednesday's startling 74-73 home loss to rival Duke, a game they let slip away by blowing a 68-60 lead with 6 1-2 minutes left. North Carolina missed six of its final eight field-goal attempts and watched the No. 20 Blue Devils rally to win despite using only five players for nearly the entire second half after losing starter Matt Jones.

"We just couldn't get a stop, and whenever they needed to get a stop, they played good defense, and we didn't have the best offense in the world," forward Justin Jackson said.

North Carolina also saw its perimeter woes return, finishing 1 of 13 from 3-point range to offset Brice Johnson's 29 points and 19 rebounds. The Tar Heels, last in the ACC in 3-point percentage (30.9), have shot 25.7 percent from beyond the arc over their last 10.

The Tar Heels have remained a dangerous offensive team despite those struggles, largely due to Johnson's dominance in the post. The ACC's leading rebounder has six double-doubles in his last eight games and amassed 48 points on 22-of-29 shooting over his past two.

Johnson went 11 of 15 from the field in a 22-point, 11-rebound effort as North Carolina snapped a three-game series skid with a 73-64 win in Coral Gables on Feb. 28, 2015. The Tar Heels had 17 points on 13 Miami turnovers and rank among the conference leaders in takeaways this season.

The Hurricanes have been terrific at taking care of the ball, though, averaging 9.1 turnovers over their last seven. They've also been stingy on the defensive end, yielding 59.0 points per game over their past three wins.

Miami limited Virginia Tech to a season-low 29.6 percent shooting in Wednesday's 65-49 victory.

The Hurricanes played without third-leading scorer Ja'Quan Newton due to an undisclosed medical issue, though he's been cleared to play Saturday.

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