The answer to the question of whether the Tar Heels could bounce back from the loss to Butler was a resounding "affirmative" as UNC dismantled UCLA 78-56 in the loser's bracket of the Battle 4 Atlantis.
If there was any question as to how seriously Roy Williams took the lack of rebounding effort on Wednesday it disappeared when UNC's startling lineup was revealed. Williams pulled Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto from the lineup in favor of Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks and Joel James. In the case of the interior lineup shift, Williams was clearly sending a message about rebounding. The move to insert Britt and bench Tokoto may have been about the offense, specifically getting Marcus Paige going. The junior guard responded early, hitting a three on UNC's third possession in a set play. Paige was much more aggressive even if his shooting was as "on" as it could have been.
Meanwhile, UNC did struggle a bit early in the game falling behind in the rebounding battle and in the game 18-11 six minutes into the game. From there UNC took methodical control of the game fueled primarily by the defense. UNC forced 12 UCLA turnovers in the first half and converted those to 19 points versus just five for UCLA off Tar Heel miscues. Paige set the pace with ten first half points including a pair of threes. UNC ended the half with Theo Pinson tipping a missed Justin Jackson free throw out for UNC to take the final possession then Pinson followed a Tokoto miss with a dunk just before the buzzer to send the Heels to the "locker room" up 43-29.
UCLA made a little noise to start the second half and drew to within nine at 47-38. After Meeks hit an 18-foot jumper, Paige dropped threes on back-to-back UNC possessions to key a 15-0 run to salt the game away. The Tar Heel lead would go as high as 30 with a little over six minutes left before UCLA rallied for the final 22 point deficit.
For the most part UNC's offense is a little rough around the edges. The Tar Heels shot just 42% from the floor but took advantage of 23 UCLA turnovers to end up with 23 more shots. UNC saw much improved effort at both the three point and free throw lines. After reverting back to last season's free throw shooting numbers, UNC hit 14-19 in this game. On the perimeter, four different Tar Heels hit threes including J.P. Tokoto going 2-2 from beyond the arc.
The post play was inconsistent thanks to UCLA's interior size and athleticism. Meeks finished with 8 points on 3-6 shooting but had just two rebounds. Johnson wasn't much of a factor off the bench with four points and two boards. Hicks ended up being a shot in the arm scoring 10 points on 5-7 shooting. Justin Jackson scored 12 despite a poor shooting night including going 2-10 in the first half.
The night belonged to Paige howeve. The Tar Heel junior playing with a wrap on his left wrist scored 21 points, was 4-10 from three and also dished out five assists in 27 minutes. It was clear from the tip the game plan was to make Paige the focal point of the offense. The fact James and Hicks were in the game instead of Meeks and Johnson also made this a necessity. Paige responded with ten first half points and two key threes in the second half to seal the game.
Overall, UNC still lost the rebounding battle but given UCLA's size and athleticism it was expected to be an even battle in that phases of the game. The point wasn't so much UNC needed to win this statistical category but rather compete in a way consistent with the talent and potential the Tar Heels possess. In short, this was a more focused Tar Heel team that still has some way to go in terms of gelling offensive but did enough on defense to control the game.