By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — When North Carolina’s freshmen were repeatedly making mistakes earlier in the season, you had to be reminded that they were freshmen.
Reminders were also needed Saturday night, but for a good reason. They played like seasoned players who knew where to be, what to do and how to do it.
Kerwin Walton and Day’Ron Sharpe led the flourishing freshmen as UNC put up its best two scoring halves of the season and rolled to a 99–54 victory over a rusty Louisville team that was playing its first game in 19 days.
It was tied for the second-largest margin of victory in an ACC in the Roy Williams era and it was the fourth-largest in program history.
How good were the young players? The 71 freshman points were a school-record, led by 21 from Sharpe and 19 from Walton. This group set the previous record of 58 against N.C. State on Jan. 23.
“I’ve said all along that I think our freshmen will be good players,” said Williams, whose team shot a season-high 60.9% from the floor. “My request is to do it during my lifetime and today it was in the first half. I hope to get to see more of that before I kick out.”
With crisp passing and good shooting, it was the best game of the season for the Tar Heels (14– 7, 8–8 ACC), who have won five of their last seven. All 10 players in UNC’s rotation had assists and 28 of its 40 field goals were assisted before Williams emptied his bench as the Tar Heels dished out a season-high 29 assists.
“We did share the ball better tonight than we have been doing. We did everything better except shoot free throws,” said Williams, whose team was 7 of 18 from the line even though he had each member of the team attempt 300 free throws in practice last week. The 38.9% shooting from the line was the ninth-lowest in program history.
Two Garrison Brooks baskets 18 minutes and 26 seconds apart, the second with 14:48 remaining in the game, sandwiched 39 consecutive UNC points from freshmen.
“I feel like during that run we were just going to blow them out and we just needed to keep applying pressure,” Sharpe said.
It was a fun stretch to watch for the Hall of Fame head coach even though Armando Bacot was on the bench with two fouls.
“Armando got in foul trouble and he was out and then, all of a sudden, Day’Ron was getting every offensive rebound during that time,” Williams said.
The Cardinals (11–5, 6–4) were best advised not to touch Kerwin Walton without an oven mitt when he scored 14 of his season-high 19 points in the first half. He finished with a season-high five 3-pointers and showed that he’s not just a shooter by driving the lane twice for baskets.
“I’ve been very comfortable,” Walton said of his driving ability, knowing that defenders have to close out on him. His teammates have come to expect every one of his shots to fall. “They are super-surprised when I miss and they always tell me I’m not allowed to miss, which is hilarious.”
The slick-shooting guard is definitely enjoying the ride.
“I mean, I’ve got a lot of pride just from being on this team,” Walton said. “Just playing for North Carolina in general, I think, is just one of the greatest feelings I’ve had in my life so far and I couldn’t trade it for anything else. It means the world to me, and I’m going to continue to do my best.”
Down low, Sharpe was a beast on the boards and was productive slashing to the basket to put up his fifth double-double of the season with 11 rebounds.
“When Day’Ron is that active around the board, that’s something that the guys appreciate,” Williams said.
Sharpe clearly was intent on being a big factor inside.
“Just playing hard and in position,” Sharpe said. “I just do little things harder than anybody else. Boxing out, going to the glass, playing defense, trying to help my teammates out talking. Somebody on the team’s got to bring energy so the rest of the players bring energy.”
Walker Kessler scored 10 points and showed off some slick passing with three assists. With Bacot scoring 14 and Brooks pitching in 12, it was the best game of the season from the Tar Heels’ post players. The 58 inside points were a season-high.
“Later in the season, we’ve been giving the freshmen more opportunities to do different things,” said Bacot, who remembered Louisville “beating the crap” out of UNC last season. “They’re starting to get more comfortable and just have a feel for the ACC as we get to the latter part of the season. So, that’s what you attribute to their good performances as of recently.”
A lot of that had to do with the Tar Heels being physical, but Williams said making the easy shots was also huge.
“We haven’t done that necessarily the last two games very often,” Williams said.
UNC got off to one of its best starts of the season, building a 14–7 lead that disappeared with a 10–3 Louisville run. The Tar Heels regained control with a 16–6 run capped by a Walton 3-pointer with 5:28 left in the first half and rolled from there, leading 48–29 at halftime.
Whether the game would even be played was in doubt after Louisville had its mid-week game with Syracuse postponed. The Cardinals were able to play their first game since Feb. 1, but were without reserves Josh Nickelberry (2.5 points per game) and Aidan Igiehon (2.6). With no walk-ons making the trip to Chapel Hill, the Cardinals had only 10 players in uniform.
Carlik Jones led the Cardinals with 13 points.
Carolina again goes out of the conference for another home game, facing Marquette (10–12) at 7 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN2).
Carolina 99, Louisville 54
Pool photos by Robert Willett