Basketball season is upon us!!.... Well, kind of. The UNC men’s basketball team beat the UNC-Pembroke Braves 124-63 in an exhibition matchup on Friday as a season warm-up that was never really close past the 15:00 minute mark of the first half. The Tar Heels ended up with six players in double figures, Joel Berry leading the way with 20 points to go with six assists and four steals. Here’s what stood out from the game:
First of all, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the game was part of a charity collaboration between UNC-CH and UNC-P to raise money and supplies for those who were most heavily affected by Hurricane Matthew, including those in the Pembroke area. There was a food drive at the game, as well as a call to those who are able to donate through either of the universities’ websites. Links will be at the bottom of this article. Just because it’s been a few weeks since the event does not mean that people have stopped struggling, and this collaboration was a good reminder of this. It was great to see the two head coaches reach out to the people together for something that is much bigger than basketball.
That said, let’s get to the basketball.
The starters were officially Joel Berry, Nate Britt, Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks, and Kennedy Meeks. The game itself was not extremely interesting, as one would expect given the disparity of the talent level of the teams. The teams traded baskets for the first two minutes. Isaiah Hicks then hit a baseline jumper to put the Heels ahead 7-4, and they never looked back. The score was 11-7 at the first media timeout, and UNC’s first three subs came in: Kenny Williams, Tony Bradley, and Luke Maye. Maye then proceeded to wreak havoc on the Braves, netting a fast-break assist, a tip-in, a short-range jumper, another fast-break assist, and then 2 offensive rebounds on the next six possessions. At the second media timeout, the score was 21-12, and it never got closer.
The thing missing from the UNC offense at this point was the three-point shot. Britt, Jackson, Williams, and Seventh Woods had all missed three-point attempts up to this point. Williams made the team’s first one to stretch the score to 26-12, and the Heels then poured it on, making their next three after that courtesy of Jackson, Britt, and Williams. At halftime, the score was 61-30, Hicks leading the way with 12 points for the Heels.
The Heels poured it on even further to open the second half, going on a quick 11-2 run courtesy of three-pointers from Jackson, Maye, and Berry, Jackson adding a tip-in for good measure. After that, the score was 72-32, and the margin was never smaller than 40 the rest of the way. Eventually, Coach Williams put the walk-ons in with five minutes to go, and Tar Heel fans caught a glimpse of preferred walk-on Shea Rush. His length is certainly intriguing, and it allowed him to make a very good defensive play, but it will be some time before he’s ready for Division 1 competition.
Coach Roy Williams rotated his lineup freely, playing several different combinations, and all the players looked comfortable with each other outside a 2-minute stretch of sloppy play from the starting lineup in the middle of the second half. At one point, UNC-P grabbed five offensive boards in the same possession, which angered Coach Williams to the point that he made a full five-for-five substitution. Obviously, we don’t want to see Coach angry, but that he has the luxury to go 10 deep this year whenever he wants to is a very obvious plus.
- This team is ready to go. UNC has shown some rust in preseason/early games before, and this is usually attributed to Coach Williams playing around with his lineups extensively, the inexperience of key contributors for whom the game will ostensibly slow down come January, and a general trend of UNC teams trending upwards in March. There was none of that on Friday night. Every combination of players worked seamlessly with each other, whether it was a big lineup like Berry/Williams/Jackson/Maye/Bradley or a smaller one, such as Berry/White/Robinson/Jackson/Hicks (yes, both of these lineups actually happened).
- All three scholarship freshman already look pretty well mentally adjusted to the college game:
- Tony Bradley was a force in the defensive frontcourt, with 4 blocks in 17 minutes to go with his 9 points and 8 rebounds. On one play, he had a classic UNC big man back-to-the-hoop basket that should get UNC fans excited for his potential to be the classic big man we’ve been craving for so long.
- Seventh Woods ran the point nicely, showing off some real handles and dropping dimes all over the court. He might already have the best ball placement and touch on the team, and he led the team in assists with 7 (tied with Jackson). He also scored 9 points. For all of Coach Williams’ talk that he might not be getting it yet, he looks awfully good.
- Brandon Robinson probably had the roughest night of the bunch, both literally and figuratively. His scrappy style of play will be a welcome addition to the team, and it earned him a steal off an inbounds play after a UNC made basket at one point. It also earned him about 5 collisions with the hardwood. Out of the three freshmen, he was probably the least mentally prepared, although this showed more at the free throw line than in his live-ball play. The magnitude of playing in the Dean Dome seemed to hit him pretty hard when the game paused for him to take his free throws, and he was visibly upset with himself for missing both attempts during one trip and one of his attempts on another trip. This did not affect his play negatively, however: After the empty trip, he went back on defense and forced a turnover.
- The Heels were very efficient offensively: 66% from the field, 50% from three-point range, 76.5% from the line. In addition, they were unselfish, with 33 assists on 44 made baskets. Jackson and Woods led the team with 7 assists, as previously stated, but others got in on the action as well: Berry finished the game with 6 assists and Luke Maye surprised many with his soft hands and good vision on the way to getting five assists.
- Speaking of Joel Berry, he is absolutely ready to lead this team. He pushed the ball whenever possible, made good decisions with the basketball, and played relentless defense on the ball. He finished the game with 22 points on 5-6 shooting (3-3 from beyond the arc) and 7-8 free throws made to go with 6 assists, 4 steals, and only one turnover.
- If there was one player who was at all disappointing, it was probably Isaiah Hicks. His box score looks good: 5-6 from the field and 6-6 from the line for 16 points and 5 rebounds in 16 minutes. On the court, though, you wouldn’t have known it. He looked tentative in the beginning, hesitant to match the Braves’ physicality down low, and therefore lost several battles for the ball when it was passed to him. He finished the game with a team-leading 4 turnovers. As the game went on, he seemed to find his rhythm, and Coach Williams said after the game that while Hicks may not have played like he can, he’s not really worried about him.
- The only aspect of this game that was less than stellar for the Heels was defensive rebounding. The loss of Brice Johnson is going to take some getting used to, but even for a team without the best rebounder in college basketball, 30 offensive rebounds allowed for a paltry DRB% of 57% is pretty bad. It’s not something to worry about yet, as there are proven rebounders on this team, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.
Remember, take all this with a spoonful of salt. It was an exhibition game against a DII opponent; the season still hasn’t actually started yet. The highs could be illusions and the lows could be anomalies. Still, it’s nice to know what we might be looking for come November 11th.
Links to donate to Hurricane Matthew relief efforts: