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UNC Basketball: Elon Game Preview

The Heels target a second road win in the Carolinas before their home debut next week.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Wofford Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina looks to build on a hard-fought but flawed season-opening victory when the No. 8 Heels (1-0, 0-0 ACC) make a short jaunt west on I-40 to face Elon (1-0, 0-0 CAA) tonight at 7 pm (ESPNU) at newly-built Schar Center in Elon, NC.

Carolina follows up only its seventh road opener since 1953 – a 78-67 win at Wofford on Tuesday night – with another road tilt against the Phoenix. This task figures to be more comfortable than the revenge win over the Terriers that was tied at 46-all midway through the second half, but that doesn’t mean Coach Roy Williams will be satisfied with anything other than a complete performance.

The two biggest issues in the Heels’ tipoff outing were rebounding and turnovers. A team that has dominated the ACC in rebounding for the better part of two decades allowed Wofford several second-chance opportunities and won the battle on the boards only 35-27, though the second half did swing more in UNC’s favor.

Carolina also did not take great care of the ball, turning it over 15 times to Wofford’s nine, with several careless passes in transition and fumbles in the post. Freshman point guard Coby White, despite being credited with only two turnovers, was shaky early in his UNC debut before settling in to help the Heels push ahead. The four other starters turned it over multiple times as well, with senior guards Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams each coughing up three.

Speaking of Williams, the Heels aim to get him going offensively after the two-way force was held scoreless against Wofford on 0-of-3 shooting from 3. Much of that was due to his exhaustive effort on defense hounding Terriers star guard Fletcher Magee, who scored an inefficient 21 points on 7-of-23 shooting and 3-of-16 from 3. Magee also didn’t record a single rebound or assist, while Williams collected six and a team-high five, respectively.

Williams will routinely be asked to blanket shooting guards of Magee’s caliber and better, so Carolina sure hopes the 0-fer was an aberration. Against the Phoenix, it would be nice to see him hit a couple of long balls – or seven, as he has been known to do.

Seven is the number of three-pointers Johnson attempted on Tuesday night. He made five, including three during a key three-minute stretch in the second half to give the Heels their need cushion to avoid the monumental upset for the second year in a row. Johnson’s first game in a UNC uniform came in the shocking defeat to the Terriers on Dec. 20 last year after transferring from Pittsburgh and sitting out the first 11 games due to injury.

Carolina fans can’t wait to see more of freshman forward Nassir Little, who, unlike Johnson, enjoyed a successful debut win over Wofford. The projected high NBA draft pick scored seven points to go along with three assists, two rebounds, and two blocks in 20 minutes off the bench.

Another weapon for UNC was sophomore forward Garrison Brooks. The fiery big man’s 16-point, 16-rebound performance in the exhibition win over Division II Mount Olive might not have been a tease, as Brooks parlayed that into a 20-point, five-rebound outing versus the Terriers.

Brooks was second in the team in scoring behind senior forward Luke Maye, who posted 24 points, seven rebounds, and four assists. The living legend offered a glimpse of what an ideal Maye should look like this season – efficient from the outside, effective on the inside, facilitative from all around, and crucially, making free throws (8-of-9).

Brooks and Maye left a decent amount to be desired on the boards, which was part of the reason it was a competitive game, but overall they led the charge and should enjoy more rebounding success going forward … as long as they actually box out! They aren’t the most athletic players in the world and will have a hard time holding their own with subpar fundamentals and tip-tappy hands.

For as much angst as UNC fans may have been feeling around 8:15 pm on Tuesday night, overall it was a solid performance. Carolina shot 29-of-59 from the field (49.2%), 9-of-22 from beyond the arc (40.9%), and 11-of-15 (73.3%) from the free-throw line. If the Heels finish the season with those shooting percentages, they will be thrilled. All in all, the defense was impressive. Again, the rebounding and turnovers likely prevented it from being a typical blowout of a mid-major.

UNC hopes for exactly that tonight against Elon, coached by tenth-year Matt Matheny and picked to finish eighth in the ten-team Colonial Athletic Association (CAA). The Phoenix pulled away late to top Manhattan 62-56 in its season opener on Tuesday night in the Bronx.

Senior forward Tyler Seibring, who led the squad in scoring and rebounding a year ago, tallied 17 points and eight boards. Senior guards Dainan Swoope and Steven Santa Ana, Elon’s other returning starters, scored 14 and 12 points on Tuesday, respectively.

Each of the three players scored in the final minute to hold off the Jaspers. Seibring hit a jumper for a five-point lead at the one-minute mark, then Swoope and Santa Ana each drilled two free throws in the final 30 seconds to ice the six-point win.

The only other time the programs have squared off in the modern era came on Dec. 29, 2011. Carolina routed Elon 100-62 for its sixth of nine straight wins behind 19 points from Tyler Zeller, 18 from Harrison Barnes, and 16 from John Henson.