Now that was a quality bounce back performance for North Carolina. One day after dropping their first game of the season to Texas, the Heels battled back from a halftime deficit and eventually ran away to a comfortable win. It wasn’t always pretty, but here are a few things to glean from the victory.
Yesterday, we noted that Nassir Little and Coby White scored 22 of UNC’s final 24 points against Texas. With three seniors in the starting lineup, you could argue that kind of reliance on two freshmen is more embarrassing than it is disappointing. The seniors responded in a big way on Friday.
After trailing by as many as 11 in the first half, Cameron Johnson hit a buzzer-beating three to cut the Bruin’s lead to 46-41 at the break. Then Cam, Kenny Williams, and Luke Maye came out roaring to start the second period accounting for the first 19 UNC points in the first 7:09 of the second half. There were more exciting plays and more explosive scoring runs, but those 22 points were the turning point in this game.
They couldn’t quite grab a permanent lead from the Bruins during that stretch. The Heels briefly pulled ahead 60-59, before allowing the ninth three-pointer of the game for the Bruins to go down 62-60. That led Roy Williams to rotate his first set of subs for the half, but the message had been sent. From there, Nassir Little fed off the example set by the trio and took charge with five consecutive points, including his monster dunk that killed a guy. That play put the Heels up 63-62 and the North Carolina never trailed again.
(Even though this was a shout out to the Seniors, here is Little’s dunk, because we should all be witnesses to this murder).
Improved Defensive Effort. Kind of.
For the first 26 minutes, defense was non-existent for North Carolina. After scoring 46 points in the first half, UCLA matched the above-mentioned senior onslaught shot for shot. The Bruins scored 16 points in the first 6:42 of the second half. Then their water was shut off, only scoring 16 points in the final 13:18.
Most will point to a 11-0 offensive run by the Heels as the defining moment in the game, but those buckets don’t get made without finally forcing empty possession on defense. From 13:18 to 9:20 – almost five minutes of scoreless basketball – the Bruins committed three turnovers, and missed four shots. Those seven empty possessions ended any chance for UCLA to leave Las Vegas with a win. Just to make there wasn’t even a hint of a chance for the Bruins to hang around, the stellar defense continued. The Bruins scored just 11 points in a six-minute span between the 9:20 and 3:19 remaining in the half.
There wasn’t a magic formula or tactical wizardry that took place. The Heels finally stopped playing scared, put on their big-boy pants, and decided they were tired of being punked by inferior talent. Sometimes it’s just that simple. It just took 67 minutes of action in Las Vegas before they figured it out.
This one is more for fans than actual analysis of the game. It’s always frustrating to lose, especially when it’s clear that the Heels are the more talented team. This was the case on Thursday when the Longhorns treated everyone on UNC’s roster as a second-class citizen. Yes, even Coby White. As Carolina fans, though, we are used to this. Santa Clara in 04-05. UNLV in 11-12. Northern Iowa in 15-16. Indiana in 16-17
This is what Roy Williams does. He’s stubborn in November so his players are stubborn in April. There’s a method to the madness, and almost every March we sit back in amazement. By the time the ACC season starts he will have starters, closers and everything in between humming along like a finely tuned machine. Friday’s victory was a step in that direction.
UNC has not had three seniors in it’s starting line up since 1993-1994. There are a lot of factors at play, and everyone is looking for their niche to help the team. Nassir Little very well may slide into the starting role. Sterling Manley might still be a year away from being a consistent presence. Garrison Brooks, despite his struggles in Vegas, is going to play pivotal minutes when you least expect it. The list goes on.
Just remember it’s November. Gonzaga, Kentucky, and Michigan still await. This may not be the last loss before January. When the next one happens, just sit back and relax. We watch this movie every year, and it rarely has a tragic ending.