By R.L. Bynum
For many Carolina fans trying to recover from the pain of last season, the hype surrounding a highly touted freshman class gave them hope that everything will be back to normal this season.
Two of the most hyped were 6-10, 265-pound post player Day’Ron Sharpe and point guard Caleb Love, and neither disappointed.
Sharpe was downright beastly inside, showing terrific rebounding skills and good hands for a big guy. Love displayed impressive defensive skills for a young player while running the offense effectively with smart although not dazzling passes.
Both showed that they are going to be a lot of fun to watch on a night that was painful at times to watch. The No. 16 Tar Heels (1-0) overcame plenty of struggles, sloppy play and bad shooting to finally put away College of Charleston for a 79-60 victory Wednesday night at the Smith Center.
For much of the evening, the Tar Heels had trouble making easy shots inside and even trailed the Cougars by one with 15 minutes left. But a 21-3 UNC run in just over six minutes assured that the opening-game issues wouldn’t produce an upset loss.
It was during that run that Garrison Brooks saw a gear on this team that last season’s Tar Heels many times couldn’t find.
“I consider seeing what’s different once we got down one,” said Brooks, who had 5 points and 11 rebounds. “We were able to come back and really turn up on the defense and make an impact in the game. Just keep battling back and just keep going hard.”
Defense fueled that run. Andrew Platek had a blocked shot, a steal and a deflection and Armando Bacot had a block.
There were other signs that this season will go differently than last season. In Carolina’s opening-game win against Notre Dame last season, the Tar Heels committed 18 turnovers. They had only nine against College of Charleston, equal to the number of blocks. The nine turnovers were the second-lowest in an opener in the Roy Williams era.
In just the first minute of his college career, Sharpe had two rebounds and a block. He finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and one block.
All of this was no surprise to Bacot, who finished with 12 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks.
“Day’Ron is a beast,” Bacot said. “He’s really good on the board. I thought I was pretty good on the boards last year but he might shatter the double-double record the way he is on the boards.”
Sharpe has already made history as the fourth player in program history to produce a double-double in his first game, joining Cole Anthony (2019, 34 points and 11 rebounds), Sam Perkins (1980, 20 and 10) and Lennie Rosenbluth (1954, 30 and 23). A key for a pivot player likely to get fouled a lot: He made five of his six free-throw attempts.
“Even though there were no fans, it still was exactly what I expected,” Sharpe said. “My first college game playing for Carolina was a dream come true. And I always wanted to play here since I was young. Without the fans, it was still a great experience for me.”
Williams’ plan was to start Bacot at the five and then start Sharpe there to begin the second half. Bacot started the second half only because Sharpe already had two fouls and Williams didn’t want him to quickly pick up a third foul. Williams said it was a flip of the coin determining who would start at the five.
Walker Kessler and Puff Johnson only played four and three minutes, respectively, because of conditioning issues since they had recently come out of COVID-19 protocols and had missed several practices.
Love overcame a nasty spill and finished 17 points, 4 assists and 2 steals. Love and RJ Davis, who had 11 points and 4 rebounds, became the first all-freshman starting backcourt for UNC since Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington in 2007.
This is the second straight season that a freshman point guard has led UNC in scoring in the opener after Anthony did it a year ago against Notre Dame.
Much like Sharpe, this was a special night for Love, who made all eight free-throw attempts.
“You watch those games and your dream is to be here, so just me being here just felt good, playing out there having this jersey on and playing for Coach Williams. It’s just a great experience overall,” Love said.
Playing point guard in the UNC system requires a steep learning curve and he responded well, particularly considering that it was his first game. He admitted that he’s still learning.
“Just knowing times and situations and when to get the big guys some touches,” Love said. “So, I think that’s the biggest thing, just learning how to be a real point guard and control this team because the team goes if the point guard goes.”
The team that Williams saw Wednesday didn’t look like the team he’s seen through dozens of practices. The Tar Heels shot 39.4% from the floor and were just 4 of 18 from 3-point range.
“I think we’re going to be a much better shooting team than we were last year and we didn’t show it tonight,” Williams said. “But, guys, we had four freshmen in the top seven. This team probably needed an exhibition game and a scrimmage or two exhibition games, maybe more than any team I’ve ever had.”
Carolina gets a few days off before playing three games in three days at the Maui Classic in Asheville, starting with Monday night’s 7 p.m. first-round game against UNLV.
No. 16 North Carolina 79, College of Charleston 60
College of Charleston……32 28 — 60
North Carolina…………..39 40 — 79
Pool photos by Robert Willett