By Doc Kennedy
Now that’s more like it.
After a blech performance at Wake Forest on Tuesday night in a game where UNC was expected to play with some urgency, followed by Armando Bacot questioning his team, a players-only meeting, and a social media kerfuffle about possible issues on the squad, Carolina responded on Saturday with a 91–71 drubbing of formerly league-leading Clemson at the Smith Center.
It didn’t look like the Tar Heels had figured out what ailed them in the first four minutes, jacking up bad shots and getting abused on defense, falling behind quickly, 8–2. Then the old Roy Williams maxim came into play — “everything looks better when the ball is going in the basket.” UNC started making shots and turned a one-point deficit at the 10-minute mark into a nine-point halftime lead.
Carolina got key minutes and points off the bench from Puff Johnson and Jalen Washington while staking the early advantage. The second half saw more of the same as the Heels eventually pushed the lead to 25 late in the final period, allowing Hubert Davis to empty his bench for the first time in forever and save some legs for a quick turnaround for Monday night when the Miami Hurricanes come to Chapel Hill.
This game was proof that the recipe for UNC’s success is simple: shoot better, as the Roy-ism indicates. During the three-game losing streak, Carolina shot 36.7% from the floor. Saturday it was 47.8%. For the Tar Heels to be a very good basketball team, they don’t have to shoot lights-out, they just don’t have to be awful.
Likewise, to put together a solid stretch run, UNC needs their Big Three — Bacot, Love, and Davis, to show up and put the ball in the basket. During the streak, those three shot a combined 36.2% overall and 25.6% from 3-point range. Saturday, the Big Three shot 57.1% and 52.6% from deep in a 20-point win.
Carolina just needs to be an average shooting team and have the Big Three match that energy, and the Heels will be a tough out in February and the tournament.
With that in mind, here is a relieved edition of the Good, Bad, and Ugly Report:
Part of the Caleb Love ExperienceTM is games like these. The junior guard scored 23 points on 7-12 shooting, including 6 of 9 from three. He also added five assists against only one turnover. He was crisp, efficient, and engaged, which makes those nights where he is not absolutely infuriating. But, again, that’s all part of the Experience.
Just another day at the office for Bacot, who keeps an inside track on ACC Player of the Year honors with yet another double-double (19 points and 11 rebounds), his 16th of the season and 65th of his career.
Leaky Black and RJ Davis
Black and Davis showed on Saturday that doing what you are best at doing is usually enough. Leaky locked down Clemson’s Hunter Tyson on defense, allowing Tyson, who came in averaging 17 points per game, just three points on two total shots, while chipping in seven points and sevenrebounds on his own. Davis broke out of a 1 of 15 3-point shooting slump to chip in 17 points on 4 of 10 from distance.
Despite the offensive explosion, UNC allowed Clemson to shoot 45% from the game, including better than 50% from two. Early on in the game, the Tigers tried to follow the Wake Forest template and set lots of screens up top, forcing Carolina’s guards into bad defensive situations. The Heels have chosen to go under screens the past few games, which has allowed opposing guards to get space enough to shoot or to drive. Though that got better as the game went on, UNC will need to clean that up and quick, as one of the best backcourts in the league comes to town Monday night.
Pete Nance’s injury
It’s pretty clear that Pete Nance’s back isn’t anywhere near 100%. Nance’s shooting has plummeted and he came to the bench in each half to get treatment, resulting in only 19 minutes played. Unfortunately, in those 19 minutes, Nance was 0 of 7 from the floor and 0 of 3 from three, though he did chip in five rebounds and a nifty assist to Bacot. The injury to Nance allowed for more minutes for Puff Johnson, who contributed eight points, three rebounds, two assists, and a pair of 3-pointers in 18 minutes. The message board and social media coaches clamoring for Johnson to play more over Nance seem to forget Puff’s injury-filled season that has limited his availability as well. They did strike a nice balance, and hopefully, Nance can get well for the stretch run while Johnson continues a healthy return from his own injury woes.
Whether or not this was a get-right game for UNC remains to be seen, but losing this game would have put the Heels’ NCAA hopes on life support. Instead, Carolina lives to fight another day, and with nationally ranked Miami invading the Smith Center on Monday night, the Tar Heels have a chance to notch an elusive Q1 win, with Miami hanging right around 30 in NET. UNC has been a crisp 11–1 at home but will face a challenge against the No. 19 Hurricanes, who sit a half-game out of first in the ACC.
Doc Kennedy is an alum and longtime UNC fan who is a former high school and college basketball coach and wrote this report for years on Tar Heel Blog.
Photo via @UNC_Basketball