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UNC Basketball vs Tennessee: Three Things We Learned

This team is rewriting what we expect.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday, the Tar Heels fought and clawed their way to a 78-73 win over Rick Barnes and the Tennessee Volunteers. The crowd was loud, the score was close, and the opponent was tough. Nevertheless, the Heels came out on top despite only leading for a grand total of about 90 seconds of the game. What did Carolina teach us yesterday?

This team does not want to give up an easy loss

This makes the second game this season that Carolina, in the past, would have lost. The Stanford game had the hallmarks of one Carolina lets go before going into their holiday tournament, and the Tennessee game had the hangover of exams plus a hostile crowd going against it. When Tennessee kept a steady 6 to 10 point lead throughout the first half while Joel Berry II sat with two fouls, many fans were already talking themselves into the loss and content with the idea of Jalek Felton getting some extended minutes at the point.

The end of the first half, however, made a statement. It was a little play, but it was one that announced Carolina wasn’t just going to give up because their stars were having off games. Kenny Williams, who you would hear from later, missed a three but Sterling Manning fought for the rebound, and got a put back as the clock struck zero to cut the lead back form eight to six. It was only two points, but it allowed the team some momentum as they ran into the locker room, and it also kept the team within striking distance.

The second half saw the Heels adjust to the pressure that Tennessee had put forth, as well as fine tune their defense. Averaging 19 assists a game, Tennessee ended with only 11. Shooting almost 45% for the year, they ended up shooting a measly 37%. They forced the action and made the referees call more fouls. Carolina, at one point, was loosing the free throw attempt battle 13-3. They ended up winning it 19-17. They out rebounded a team that was more experienced than them in the front court.

Carolina just kept coming back. Before the second TV timeout they had taken a one-point lead, only to see the home squad race back out to six. Rather than wilt, Joel Berry immediately ran down the floor and hit a shot that instantly quieted a raucous crowd at the 10:17 mark. The rest of the half went back and forth to where the Heels were down by only one at the 1:24 mark. The Heels then turned it over on a bad inbound/great defensive play by Tennessee. The Vols immediately scored to go up by three. Ball game, right?

Nope. Berry draws another foul, calmly sinks the free throws, forces a turnover, and then the assassin Kenny Williams drains a three to give Carolina the lead for good. The Heels crank up the defense, force a bad shot, and Theo Pinson ends it with free throws.

There are going to be games like this during conference play, and there will likely be games like this during the NCAA Tournament. Every game from Arkansas on, in fact, was a fight for that team last year, and it was great to see the upperclassmen use that fight and apply it this year. The freshmen fed off this energy and contributed to the full team effort, all of which will pay off in the long run.

Luke Maye can rebound from a bad half

We had gotten so used to Maye being Superman than when he struggled in the first half, there was a fear that the size that Tennessee had would swallow him whole like Michigan State had. The junior was only two of six from the field in the first half and, with Berry on the bench, seemed lost at times. The offense also seemed to flow away from him, and that was a big reason for the Heels trailing at halftime.

The tendency for Luke had been that if he wasn’t visible in the first half, he was gone for the whole game. It certainly was the case during the Final Four, and for that aforementioned Michigan State game. That wasn’t the case on Sunday, as Maye answered a three-point shot from Tennessee with a layup, and then hit a three-pointer on the very next set. Soon after, he converted a steal from Pinson into a powerful dunk, and the game was on.

Maye finished tied with his classmate Kenny Williams for 15 points, only topped by Berry’s 21. It may not be his biggest point total of the season, but it may be his most important to date, as it showed he can recover from a rough start. It won’t be the last time a team works to deny him the ball, and seeing him adjust and find his way back into the offense was good. It’ll come in handy during ACC play.

Jalek Felton still has some growing pains

One of the reasons Maye wasn’t able to get into the flow in the first half was the two fouls from their senior point guard. Roy Williams pulled Berry soon after his second foul, and opted to give the freshman Felton the rest of the half to show what he could do.

It was a typical December move by the veteran head coach. With Seventh Woods likely to be out for a significant portion of the season, if not the whole rest of it, Williams opted to use this as a teaching moment for the young Felton. Today won’t be the last time that Berry will have foul trouble in the first half, as we all remember that Duke game in the ACC Tournament all too well. As Felton is going to be the only backup, it was important for him to take the helm in a big road game to see what he could do.

Felton struggled, there’s no other way to say it. The freshman missed the only two shots he took, had three turnovers, and only two assists. When he was out there, it was a reminder of just how firm a grasp of the offense that Berry had while reminding us how much Felton has to learn. He didn’t do himself any favors in the second half when he lost the ball trying to dribble it between his legs while Williams was doing his “sit Berry before the TV Timeout to steal more rest for him” move.

That said, Tennessee was never able to completely cut out the legs from Carolina. Despite the struggles, the play at the end of the first half was what you want to see from Carolina Basketball. It should help teach the freshman that what he got away with in high school won’t work at this level, and the experience will pay off in the long run. In the end, Carolina got the win with Berry only playing 28 minutes against a top 20 ranked team. There’s a lot to work with.

***

Overall, to say this is a good win is an undersell. When you look at the circumstances, this is their best of the season so far. It’s also the type of game that the NCAA committee remembers in March when they are setting up seeds. Next up, a sneaky Wofford team that already has a win over the reigning ACC Coach of the Year.