By R.L. Bynum
Even in 2020 when nothing is certain, there are a couple of mortal locks when it comes to Carolina basketball — Coach Roy Williams isn’t going to call a timeout to stop a seemingly never-ending opponent run and the Tar Heels are going to dominate the boards.
The No. 14 Tar Heels survived the former and took advantage of the latter and rolled to a 78–51 victory Monday night in Asheville in the first round of the Maui Invitational. UNC (2–0) will face Stanford (1–0) in a 4 p.m. semifinal Tuesday (ESPN).
“You know those guys who’ve been around here a long time know that I wasn’t gonna call a timeout and I told them when it was the TV timeout that I didn’t get us in the problem, they did” said Williams, who put the entire starting lineup on the bench during that stretch. “I told them at first timeout I wasn’t worried about the score, I was just worried about how we were playing.”
Williams credited Armando Bacot, who finished with 12 points and five rebounds, and Andrew Platek, who had 11 points, with jump-starting the team.
“Armando was 4 of 4 and Andrew was 4 of 6, and we’ve got to get everybody to have that kind of feeling of being efficient with the ball, not just getting a number of shots up,” Williams said. “But we have got to play better. I mean, you can’t spot a lot of people 13 and think you’re going to come back and win. So, we’ve got to play better during that time period.”
The horrible UNC start was marked by bad shooting and sloppy play. Tough defense sparked a 15–3 run as UNC took its first lead with 3:22 left in the first half on a drive by RJ Davis. The Heels led 37-30 at halftime and rolled from there, outrebounding the Runnin’ Rebels (0-2) 54-35.
“After the first six minutes or so I thought we did some good things and got better and I hope and think we learned a lot from tonight,” Williams said.
That was the most consecutive points by a UNC opponent to open a game against (13) since Miami led 14–0 in the 2018 ACC tournament quarterfinal in Brooklyn. UNC led that game 32–31 at halftime and won it 82–65.
UNC closed the first half with a 37–17 run and began the second half with a 13–1 run. Over the last 33:42 of the game, the Tar Heels outscored the Rebels 78–38.
“Our main principle was just to just go out there and hustle and not let them get the easy, open looks and shots that they want,” Bacot said. “Early, we struggled to just get back on defense and obviously were missing a couple shots. They were making their shots, so we just knew we had to go out there and just play hard.”
The rebounding advantage allowed the Tar Heels to lead UNLV in second-chance points 21-9.
“We’ve just known that’s one of our strong suits for the season with us being so deep in the frontcourt and having so much length,” Bacot said. “We know that’s something we can lean on. Even if our shots aren’t falling, as long as we attack the glass and get a lot of rebounds, that gives us the advantage over the other team and gets us extra shots.”
When the shots weren’t falling, the guy who finally broke through was Platek with a 3-pointer after the Heels went scoreless for the first 6 minutes and 18 seconds.
UNC’s defensive player of the game for the win over College of Charleston got plenty of criticism after the opener for taking too many shots. For at least one night, Platek quieted those critics, shooting 2 of 4 from 3-point range.
“I just keep shooting because I know they’re gonna go in and that’s just my mentality — just the next one’s gonna go,” said Platek, who was 2 of 9 in the opener. He compared his mentality, but not his shooting skills, to that of the Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson. “It’s the same mentality, as someone at any age. You just gotta keep going and keep the confidence in yourself that the next one’s gonna fall.”
That’s only the third double-figure scoring game of his career and first since doing it twice early in the 2017–18 season.
The Tar Heels shot 48% from the floor and 43.8% from 3-point range after that scoreless stretch to start the game.
“Sticking to what we know how to do helped us go on that run and keep our foot on the gas in the second half,” Platek said.
Defense was a big part of Carolina pulling away, specifically the defensive job that Leaky Black did on UNLV’s Bryce Hamilton, who scored 11 in the first half but finished with only 15.
“I think North Carolina, they just started to have more pressure, bringing us out like 35, 40 feet out on the court and they just started to key in more and we didn’t have much ball movement, so I felt like throughout the game they got better,” Hamilton said.
Black had a lot to do with Hamilton’s struggles.
“Leaky was unbelievable tonight on Bryce, just not letting him get to his spots and even when he would get the ball, making him take tough fall-away jump shots and stuff he wasn’t comfortable with,” Platek said. “Leaky is that kind of player on the defensive end. He can do that to anybody in the country just because he’s so big and he can use his length so well.”
Black struggled with his shot but had a good overall game with five points, 10 rebounds (a career high), two assists, one block and two steals.
Davis led the scoring with 16 points to go with six rebounds, with Garrison Brooks collecting 14 points and seven rebounds.
A year ago, UNC probably wouldn’t have been able to recover from the slow start but the depth and size proved to be a big difference.
“I think what we didn’t have last year was two really big interior post guys that we could rotate. So, if our two bigs get tired, we’ve got two more big guys coming in right after,” Platek said. “They’re not the biggest team in the world, so we kind of used that to our advantage.”
Both freshman big men, Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler, pulled down six rebounds. Kessler scored seven points and showed several times during his first extended playing time of the season that his length will be tough for opponents to deal with.
“He is really long and he can bother shots inside,” Williams said. “He can get his hands on some offensive rebounds that the other guys can’t get, and then you saw him dive on the floor like that tonight. That kind of effort is only going to get him a heck of a lot more playing time.”
Stanford won its first-round game Monday night 82–64 over Alabama. Tuesday’s second semifinal matches Williams against Stanford coach Jerod Haase, who played for him at Kansas and was an assistant coach on his coaching staffs at Kansas and UNC.
UNC is 12-0 against Stanford. Only the 19 victories over The Citadel are more against an opponent that has never defeated the Tar Heels.
In Tuesday’s first Maui semifinal at 1:30 p.m., No. 17 Texas (a 78–76 winner over Davidson) will meet Indiana (which beat Providence 79–58).
No. 14 North Carolina 78, UNLV 51
Photos courtesy of Maui Invitational