By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — It was all about getting in a game against a decent opponent for North Carolina and finding a rhythm during this uneven pandemic season.
That was nowhere to be found in Saturday’s loss at Virginia.
It took the better part of one half to find it and, for a time, all the Tar Heels seemed to be able to do Wednesday night was turn the ball over. But they got together before cruising to an 82–62 win at the Smith Center over Northeastern, which is the CAA’s second-place team.
Some questioned risking a damaging Quad 3 loss to Northeastern that would have been a stain on UNC’s NCAA tournament resume. As much as the Huskies (9–8) tried to do that with their relentless 3-point shooting (10 of their 21 field goals were 3s), it wasn’t going to happen.
“We didn’t try to find the number 353 team in the country,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We found a team that had higher RPI or net, whatever it is, than three teams in our league.”
Williams initially tried to schedule teams originally on the schedule and in-state schools, but that didn’t work out.
“Glad we got to play a game. We needed to play a game at home period,” said Williams, whose team has played only seven of 20 games at home and hadn’t played a home game since Jan. 23. “It’s not equitable. It’s not fair.”
Every day, Williams wonders what the pandemic might do to his schedule next.
“You’re so hesitant. You’re so cautious with what you’re doing but you’re also afraid of what might happen to your team or somebody else’s team,” said Williams, who knows that the players worry when Clint Gwaltney, UNC’s senior associate athletics director who is responsible for scheduling, walks up to him at the end of a practice. “My guys are over there dying” whenever that happens.
Players will always prefer games over practices. Cole Anthony said a couple of weeks ago that playing several games in a week in the NBA was nothing compared to the practices at UNC.
“Just getting this game was good for us to get our flow going,” point guard Caleb Love said. ‘Just practicing is tough on our body. So, just getting games in and playing a different opponent other than ourselves is good for us.”
Love dished out a season-high nine assists (previous best was seven against Duke) against only two turnovers. That was the best assist total by a UNC freshman since Marcus Paige collected 10 against Florida State in the 2013 ACC tournament quarterfinals.
“I was just seeing how the game was flowing and I’m just seeing my teammates getting open and seeing the floor different,” Love said.
Carolina (13–7) won with balanced scoring as nearly half of its points (40) came from reserves. Day’Ron Sharpe led the way with 15 points, Kerwin Walton tied his season-high with 14 points (also at Florida State) and Garrison Brooks pitched in 11 points and 13 rebounds.
Walker Kessler had season-highs of 10 points and seven rebounds and banked in a straight-away 3-pointer. An hour after the game, he was on the court practicing 3-pointers.
“I think everybody was just super-excited about just having a game today,” Walton said. “And I think this game really helped us just to be in the flow and getting our chemistry better to get us some good rhythm, showing us stuff we’ve got to work on on defense and offense.”
The play of the Tar Heels big men was the key to making it an easier game in the second half.
“Making simple play on offensive end. Scoring around the basket. Defending the basket,” Williams said. “I think I’ve always said to our big guys that I thought we can be much better job this year than we were last year defending around the basket and I think that’s the biggest thing for us. We only had two blocks, but I think we do make it more difficult for guys to score around the basket.”
The Tar Heels made Northeastern pay for mistakes with 22 points off of its 16 turnovers. UNC moved to 5–1 this season when that number is 20 or more.
Virtual tip jar
If you like this coverage of UNC athletics, pass on an assist in the amount that matches the number worn by great Tar Heel playmakers such as Ty Lawson, Kendall Marshall and Marcus Paige: 5.
Northeastern figured to be no pushover and sophomore Tyson Walker made sure of that by scoring 21 of his game-high 27 points in the first half, easily topping his 18.0 scoring average. His big game came after he scored a career-high 36 points Saturday against Towson.
Walker wasn’t as much of a factor after UNC led 41–30 at halftime, as he was 1 of 7 in the second half.
“Trying to do a better job on Walker in the second half was huge for us,” Williams said. “He’s a gifted player and made it tough. Never been outscored by one guy but it looked like that he was going to do that.”
An 8–0 second-half run, highlighted by a Kessler steal and dunk, turned the game into a rout as Northeastern went more than 5½ minutes without a field goal.
UNC finally shot well from the line after hitting only 51.7% in the previous three games, making 13 of 16 attempts.
When the Tar Heels play next is anybody’s guess. A 6 p.m. Saturday home game against Louisville is still on the schedule, but the Cardinals had their game against Syracuse postponed because of COVID-19 issues. After that, UNC was supposed to play at Boston College on Tuesday but that game has already been postponed.
Carolina 82, Northeastern 62
Pool photos by Robert Willett