By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Where was the defense for North Carolina in the first six games? It showed up against Michigan but it took the offense a while to follow.
Eventually, the Tar Heels were creating offense with their defense.
In one of the most complete efforts of the season, the Tar Heels had more assists than turnovers for the first time in four games to knock off No. 24 Michigan 72–51 Wednesday night in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at the Smith Center.
The team heard what people have been saying and was intent on changing the narrative.
“A lot of chatter and stuff about our defense and about our team. We took it personal,” said Caleb Love, who had a game-high 22 points, dished out four assists, swiped three steals and was obviously playing with passion.
“This was like a statement game for us,” said Love, who was lethal with his step-back jumper. “Not because we played Michigan, but just because a lot of people ain’t talking about how bad we are, how bad we play on defense. So it was a statement of the game. We’re going to build off this. We’re going to keep going.”
Carolina (5–2) showed that it’s starting to get its game together after some rough going in the previous three games, getting better movement on offense and resolve on defense for the feel-good win the Heels needed.
“We’re a very talented team,” said Armando Bacot, who had 11 points and 14 rebounds. “But just putting it all together, we had a lot of new faces, new coaches. So, it’s not gonna be easy starting off.
“This is definitely some good to build off of,” Bacot said. “We played great on the defensive end, and we’ve been hearing stuff about how we’re not in a defensive team and we can’t defend. But I think today we showed defensive potential.”
UNC had 13 assists and six turnovers and held Michigan (4–3) in check. The Wolverines only scored 0.78 points per possession, by far Carolina’s best defensive performance of the season.
It all started with positive vibes in practice.
“Yesterday, we had the best practice that I can remember this year,” Coach Hubert Davis said. “The energy and effort on the defensive end was great. On the offensive end, we were sharing the basketball and we were excited about other teammates’ success. It was a great practice. It was hard and competitive; but it’s also fun. We played together as a team and they did the same thing tonight against Michigan.”
Bacot also had three assists and did a good job of passing out of double-teams against him.
“So, it was allowing us to get a lot of open shots,” Bacot said. “I thought I did a pretty good job of just passing out of the post and we just had good ball movement, and good things were happening playing inside and out. So, it just helped us out. I feel like that was a big reason why we had a pretty good lead in the second half.”
Dawson Garcia added 14 points for UNC.
“I think it really just goes to whatever the defense gives us,” Garcia said. “You know, we had an advantage inside. They’re having trouble guarding us inside so we’re going at them. And then, next thing you know, we’re in a pick-and-roll situation. If they run towards me or whoever is popping, the guard is going to be able to get downhill or be open for a 3.”
It took nearly three minutes for RJ Davis to score the game’s first points on a jumper. UNC scored the last five points of the first half to take a 29–27 lead on a Love 3-pointer with 10 seconds left after trailing Michigan by five points earlier.
Bacot’s 3-point play with 18:27 left in the game was huge because it also produced the fourth foul on Michigan center Hunter Dickinson. That made navigating the inside easier, as Leaky Black’s follow-up shot and a 3-point play and a Love drive made it 41–33 with 15:44 remaining.
Manek’s 3-pointer pushed the lead to 13 with 9:35 left. A Love dunk with 8:12 left pushed the Heels’ lead to 15 at 53–38.
“I love our fans,” Love said of the crowd of 19,983. “They were into it the whole game, the whole 40 minutes and we just feed off them and let their energy play off ours.”
The Tar Heels open ACC play at 3 p.m. Sunday at Georgia Tech (ESPN2). The Yellow Jackets are 5–2 after a 70–66 home loss Wednesday against No. 23 Wisconsin.
NOTES — Carolina is 11–12 in the Challenge, including 6–5 in Chapel Hill. … The win was UNC’s first in the Challenge since beating Michigan in Chapel Hill in 2017. … The 21-point win is UNC’s largest in the Challenge since a 98–63 win over Michigan State in Detroit in 2008. … Michigan’s 51 points are the fewest UNC has allowed in the Challenge (previous fewest was 55 by Ohio State in 2007). … UNC made two of three free-throws attempts. The two made free throws tied the fewest in a game in UNC history (the sixth time, first since 2004 vs. Clemson). … UNC’s three free-throw attempts were the fewest in a game in Carolina history. The previous lowest was four, which happened three times.
UNC 72, No. 24 Michigan 51
UNC season statistics
|Date||Score, record; day, time, TV||Location||Opponent|
|5||83–55 exhibition win||Home||Elizabeth City State|
|9||83–67 win, 1–0||Home||Loyola Maryland|
|12||94–87 win, 2–0||Home||Brown|
|16||94–83 win, 3–0||Road||College of Charleston|
|20||93–84 loss, 3–1||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 2 Purdue|
|21||89–72 loss, 3–2||Uncasville, Conn.||Y — No. 13 Tennessee|
|23||72–53 win, 4–2||Home||UNC Asheville|
|1||72–51 win, 5–2||Home||X — No. 24 Michigan|
|5||Sunday, 3, ESPN2||Road||Georgia Tech|
|11||Saturday, 8, ACCN||Home||Elon|
|14||Tuesday, 7, ESPN2||Home||Furman|
|18||Saturday, 3, CBS||Las Vegas||Z — No. 5 UCLA|
|21||Tuesday, 7, ACCN||Home||Appalachian State|
|29||Wednesday, 7, ESPN2||Home||Virginia Tech|
|1||Saturday, noon, ACCN||Road||Boston College|
|5||Wednesday, 9, ESPN2||Road||Notre Dame|
|8||Saturday, 1, ESPN||Home||Virginia|
|15||Saturday, 8, ACCN||Home||Georgia Tech|
|18||Tuesday, TBA, ESPN||Road||Miami|
|22||Saturday, 8, ACCN||Road||Wake Forest|
|26||Wednesday, RSN||Home||Boston College|
|29||Saturday, 2, ACCN||Home||N.C. State|
|31||Monday, 7, ESPN||Road||Louisville|
|5||Saturday, 6, ESPN||Home||No. 1 Duke|
|8||Tuesday, 9, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||Clemson|
|12||Saturday, 2, ESPN or ESPN2||Home||Florida State|
|16||Wednesday, 8, ACCN||Home||Pittsburgh|
|19||Saturday, 4, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||Virginia Tech|
|21||Monday, 7, ESPN||Home||Louisville|
|26||Saturday, 2 or 4, ESPN or ESPN2||Road||N.C. State|
|28||Monday, 7, ESPN||Home||Syracuse|
|5||Saturday, 6, ESPN||Road||No. 1 Duke|
Y — Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off; Z — CBS Sports Classic
Photo via @UNC_Basketball