As Roy Williams noted in his postgame press conference it wasn't a pretty game but it was a win as the Heels grind out a 76-60 win over NC Central for a 13th straight home opener victory.
The game started out in fine form for UNC with an 11-0 spurt. Brice Johnson hit a couple of jumpers and Theo Pinson, starting in place of J.P. Tokoto, got a dunk to fuel the opening salvo. After the initial push the game bogged down. NC Central played a part in the game becoming a grind by consuming much of the shot clock in the half court offense and going zone or box and one against on the defensive end.
As has been the case for a couple of seasons now, the zone defense gave the Tar Heels problems. UNC didn't move the ball particularly well, settled for outside jumpers and neglected the post game. Neither team acquitted themselves well on the offensive end and following UNC's 11-0 run to start the game, the final 15 minutes of the half went 19-17 in favor of NC Central. Roy Williams made liberal use of his bench which also contributed to the Tar Heels uneven play. UNC ended the half shooting just 41% from the floor and 1-7 from three.
The second half was still very much a grind thanks to the Eagles deliberate pace however UNC opted to trap more in hopes of creating turnovers and forcing the tempo. The switch in defense was effective to some extent as was UNC getting better control of the boards. After a first half of outrebounding NCCU 20-17, the Heels dominated the boards in the second half with a +16 edge on the glass. The Heels scored 16 of 19 second chance points in second half including a par of three point players off offensive putbacks by Justin Jackson and Isaiah Hicks. From there the Heels trudged through the second half much the same way as the first with the lead hovering around 13-15 points before a final push made it 21 with 1:41 left. During a late second half stretch, Joel James played possibly his best minutes as a Tar Heel tallying seven points on a pair of baseline jumpers and 3-3 at the free throw line.
Brice Johnson led the Heels with 12 points and eight rebounds. Kennedy Meeks and J.P. Tokoto had ten points each. Meek grabbed a team high team rebounds and Tokoto tallied four assists along with freshman Theo Pinson. Justin Jackson had nine points in his first official game while Isaiah Hicks and Marcus Paige chipped in eight points apiece. UNC did struggle from behind the arc hitting just two threes in 11 attempts. The Tar Heels went 20-30 from the free throw line with a 2-7 night out of Hicks dragging the overall percentage down.
It should be noted that a year ago, UNC looked like a really good team in the first half against Oakland last season but faltering in the second half. The Heels then struggled to beat Holy Cross a week later followed by the infamous loss to Belmont. After the exhibition performances it was assumed UNC's play in this game would be a little better than it was. The problem with that logic is it discounts the fact NC Central is a fairly decent team versus exhibition teams which were several steps below the Tar Heels. NCCU is also a well coached team with capable players. In addition to NC Central's impact on the game, UNC is nowhere close to a finished product. There is still plenty of development needed in certain aspects of the game before this group comes anywhere close to its full potential.
While much has been made at how well the freshman have meshed in with the rest of the team and the overall chemistry being excellent, the development of on-court chemistry isn't quite there. UNC made plenty of mistakes in execution on both ends. Ball handling was a problem at times as was making clean passes. These sort of things need to work themselves out as the team plays together. There is also the frequent rotation of players which is a Roy Williams trademark during this stage of the season. The random lineup combinations can be a little disruptive. There is also the long known fact that Williams' teams can be a little inconsistent in November and December but for the most part round into form when the season reaches its climax.
In short, this game was sloppy but also showed some positive signs like the active play of Hicks and Pinson plus the fact UNC was up by 21 points with Paige scoring just eight points and the team going 2-11 from three. The season isn't made by one game or even one month. The history of Williams' teams have proven this time and time again.
Lineup note: Roy Williams said after the game that J.P. Tokoto did something in practice he "didn't like" so he started Theo Pinson in his place. Tokoto entered the game in short order and started the second half indicating him being pulled from the starting lineup was a short lived disciplinary action that is now "over"