Surging Tar Heels pound the ball inside consistently, hold off Pitt

By R.L. Bynum

Roy Williams has a lot of reasons to be happy. Not only has North Carolina won three consecutive games and six of its last seven, the Tar Heels are doing it the way he loves — with the offense focused on getting the ball to their two big men.

With better facilitating from point guards Caleb Love and RJ Davis, the Tar Heels pounded it inside against Pittsburgh in a 76–65 road victory Tuesday night. 

UNC (11–5, 6–3 ACC) doesn’t resemble the team that struggled to even get shots at times a few weeks ago because of sloppy play. Against Pitt, UNC only had 13 turnovers and one was an intentional shot-clock violation at the end of the game.

Armando Bacot continued his impressive play with 21 points, 10 rebounds, a season-high three dunks, three blocks and his fourth double-double of the season. Garrison Brooks rebounded from a rough game against N.C. State (four points, five fouls) with 16 points and six rebounds. 

“We emphasized throwing it in to those big guys, and then when they throw it back out, it’ll be a better shot,” Williams said. “But I think we did a great job of getting it to them in the second half. They had a difficult time handling the big guys inside.”

Williams saw the team settling for jump shots too much during stretches of the second half, though.

“We had to keep telling the guys, “Let’s keep trying to go in there.’ ” Williams said.

Bacot is averaging 18.7 points the last three games while shooting 75%. He said it’s all about staying focused and Williams helps fine-tune that focus by staying on him to get better. 

Bacot remembers getting even more resolve earlier this season when he was playing on the blue team in practice for a few weeks, backing up walk-on Duwe Farris.

“Coach is hard on me,” Bacot said. “Playing on the blue team, I was subbing in for Duwe. Literally being the last man on the team,” Bacot said. “That kind of fired me up. I’m like, ‘Hey, I can’t take it for granted. We’ve got all these guys coming in, so I just got to bring it every day.’ Literally for about a month, I was backing up Duwe.”  

Farris has played less than three minutes this season while Bacot has turned into Carolina’s best player. He’s also helping the other big men get better.

“We’ve been finding our swag a little bit, just starting to know where others like the ball and that just makes it a lot easier when we all can play off each other in both the high post and the low post,” Bacot said. “And our guards are starting to knock shots, too. So they have to start respecting us and it makes it a lot easier on us.”

Kerwin Walton scored 10 points, including two 3-pointers. 

“We’re getting more one-on-one coverage and things like that,” Bacot said. “Honestly, I feel like us, whenever we get a one-on-one coverage, it’s a high probability that we’re going to score.”

Garrison Brooks rebounded from a tough game against N.C. State to collect 16 points and six rebounds on Tuesday.

As for Brooks, he looked almost giddy during his postgame press availability now that he sees the team starting to click. Last season was difficult and he has had his struggles this season. But this win had him smiling.

“I think it’s our best victory,” Brooks said. “Coming on the road against a really good team like Pitt. I think we’re hitting our stride at the right time and we’ve just gotta keep getting better.”

The offensive efficiency continues to improve as UNC shot 61% from the floor in the second half. The Tar Heels have shot better than 50% in four of the last five halves. For the game, the Tar Heels were 28 of 44 from 2-point range for 66%. 

Yes, Williams said that he’s happy about all of that. Just don’t try to tell him that the team has turned the corner.

“I don’t think you ever turn the frickin’ corner in the ACC,” Williams said. “You’re only as good as your last game. I’ll go back to what I’ve said consistently. I think we are getting a little better.”

He added that the statistics that jumped out for him were Love’s five assists against only one turnover and the team’s season-high 22 assists on 32 field goals. Then, he resumed his rant.

“So, there are a lot of things that please me but there’s no way in the world I will say we’ve turned the corner,” Williams said. “If we’re lucky enough in this lifetime or the next one that we’re playing for the national championship, I’ll tell somebody, yeah, we’ve turned the corner.”

UNC used a 7–0 run midway through the second half, accentuated by a Walton 3-pointer, to take a 56–44 lead on a Davis transition layup with 10:48 after leading 34–27 at halftime.  

Leaky Black, who collected five points, six rebounds, two assists and a season-high-tying three steals, pushed it to 64–48 with a three-quarter-court pass to Anthony Harris for a layup followed by a steal and a dunk with 8:47 left. 

Pitt (8–4, 4–3) countered with a 13–2 run and only trailed 68–63 after a pair of Au’Diese Toney free throws with 3:50 remaining.

A 3-pointer by Love shot the lead back to eight points at 73–65 with 2:59 left. He fouled out a minute later on an offensive foul with eight points but, more importantly, with his best assist-to-turnover ratio of the season.

The Tar Heels are 7–1 when they turn the ball over 13 times or fewer and have piled up more assists than turnovers for five consecutive games. For the first time since the season opener, UNC’s total number of assists (244) is more than the turnover total (238).

How has Love improved his floor game?

“Just getting good shots for my guys, making it a little easier breaking down the defense,” he said. “Just finding my teammate.”

UNC’s defense held Toney (who averages 16 points per game) scoreless in the first half before he finished with eight points. Xavier Johnson (14.5 a game) was held to three first-half points and finished with seven. The Panthers scored only 27 points on 38 possessions in the first half.

Justin Champagnie scored 23 points. But he averages more than 14 shots a game and Brooks held him to nine.

“I’m just trying to knock on the ball, make it tough for him,” Brooks said.

The Tar Heels originally would have played host to Notre Dame on Saturday but since that game already was played on Jan. 2, they are off until they visit Clemson next Tuesday at 7 p.m. (ACC Network.) 

The Tigers (9–4, 3–4) take a three-game losing streak into Wednesday’s 9 p.m. home game against Louisville. Clemson’s three losses have come by 35 points to Virginia, 18 points to Georgia Tech and 19 points to Florida State.

North Carolina 75, Pittsburgh 65

UNC statistics

ACC pool photos


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