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Justin Pierce helps UNC weather a storm in Wilmington and win, 78-62

UNC gets a test with a true road game and gut it out against C.B. McGrath’s team

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at North Carolina
I guess USA Today didn’t send anybody to Wilmington...
Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Well, I’m glad that’s over. On a night of frustration that started with the UNC fandom-wide realization that the game would only be shown on FloHoops thanks to the CAA’s exclusive contract with them, only for those who managed to find FloHoops one way or the other to realize that the channel’s quality was... dubious, the on-court product between the Tar Heels and the UNCW Seahawks wasn’t much better. Still, the Heels weathered some bad play and eventually overpowered former UNC assistant C.B. McGrath’s team, 78-62, behind double-doubles from Garrison Brooks, Cole Anthony, and Justin Pierce in a breakout game for the graduate transfer.

The game started out extremely sloppily from both sides; with the exception of Justin Pierce, just about no Tar Heel could buy a basket. Anthony soon joined him in the scoring with a layup and a three-pointer, and the pair scored UNC’s first 14 points while Wilmington was able to answer as a team, and in the early going, the two were tied, 18-18 after a dunk from Brooks got him into the scoring action as well. From there, Pierce took over again, going on a mini-run of his own that extended the UNC lead to 30-21, which served as a bit of a stabilizing moment, and at the under-8 timeout, UNC led 33-23, Pierce leading all scorers with 13 points. The Seahawks got to within five points a little bit after this, but Cole Anthony, who had been having a very frustrating day, hit a filthy stepback three-pointer to stem the UNCW flow, and Andrew Platek found Brooks for a layup to get the lead back to double digits, where it would mostly stay for the rest of the game. The two teams went to halftime with the score 40-29 in UNC’s favor, the Heels shooting an ugly 30% from the field and the Seahawks not doing much better at 35%.

The second half started out much faster, with a series of mini-runs. After a UNCW tip-in, the Heels started with 6 straight points, courtesy of layups by Leaky Black and Anthony followed by Christian Keeling’s first points of the game on a midrange jumper, then allowed 7 straight from the Seahawks. The Heels then clamped down on defense and scored 10 straight points over the course of 3 minutes, so it was 59-40 with under 12 minutes to go in the game, and at that point, despite feisty effort from the Seahawks, the game was sealed. Some back-and-forth ensued, with the lead being cut to 15, then ballooning to 22 with the help of a vicious Anthony dunk and Brooks’ solid effort from the free throw line. Both sides emptied their benches with a minute and a half to go, and the final score was 78-62.

It was an offensively nightmarish game for the Heels for the most part. They finished shooting 27/72 (38%) from the floor and just 8/25 from three-point range, all of those makes coming from either Anthony or Pierce. Anthony led UNC in scoring for the second straight game with 20 points this time, but clearly wasn’t in the same kind of groove he found against Notre Dame: He was just 7/24 from the field and 4/11 from three-point range. Perhaps nothing encapsulated his struggle more than his free-throw record: A 90% free throw shooter in high school, Anthony was just 2/7 from the charity stripe. He did get involved on the boards for the second straight game, crashing the defensive glass on the way to 10 rebounds. He was supported by Pierce and Brooks, who both had 18 points: Pierce was 7/12 and scorched the nets with 4 makes on 7 long-distance tries to go with his 12 rebounds (6 offensive!), and Brooks was 5/9 with 12 boards as well, missing some easy post looks but going 8/10 from the free-throw line to buoy what was otherwise a ghastly showing from UNC: Heels not named Garrison Brooks were just 8/20 from the line. Andrew Platek showed some good things behind them, leading the team with 4 assists and finding Brooks in the post several times where the rest of the team seemingly couldn’t. Just 13 of UNC’s 27 field goals were assisted, painting a picture of how offensively discombobulated the team looked at times.

Shykeim Phillips was the leader for Wilmington, going 5/7 on the way to 12 points. He was joined by Jaylen Sims, who also scored 12 and had several other looks, especially from distance, go in and out of the basket. Sims and Jake Boggs paced the Seahawks on the boards, with 10 and 9 rebounds respectively, but UNC won the rebounding battle for the second straight game, 54-48. Part of the reason that it was so close was the absence of Armando Bacot, who left the game early after taking an elbow to the face and reportedly feeling a little woozy. According to the FloHoops broadcasters, he was held out of the rest of the game as a precautionary measure, but it’s up to you how much to trust a broadcast that called Andrew Platek “Platelet” and put up a graphic spelling the name of UNC’s 2019 point guard “Colby.” Twice. We’ll know more about Bacot’s status in the near future.

It was clear after the first game that this team was going to need some time to adjust to playing together, and everything we said then was only magnified when the played a raucous road environment for their second regular season game. With that considered, they found a way to pull out a comfortable win against inferior, but well-coached, competition, and this win, while it wasn’t pretty, will serve as an important stepping stone in this team’s journey to become a unit.