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UNC 94, College of Charleston 83: Three Things Learned

The first true road game we’ve seen in almost two years was a valuable lesson

NCAA Basketball: Elizabeth City at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t quite as sweaty as the Brown game, but once again, UNC found themselves down at the half to a hot-shooting mid-major opponent, then adjusted in the second half and eventually outscored their opponents — this time the Cougars of the College of Charleston. On a road trip to the first hostile college arena that several of UNC’s players have played in, the Heels took a punch from an aggressive team, then punched back and maintained a lead for much of the second half. Ahead of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament this weekend, here are some takeaways from Hubert Davis’ first road win as a head coach:

The turnover problem may not be all the way gone

Through two games, whatever gripes you might have had with the team (defense, lower assist rate, various players’ playing time), it looked like last year’s primary bugaboo, turnovers, had been addressed: Caleb Love had just one turnover through two games, R.J. Davis had just three, and as a team, the Heels had just 19, which isn’t bad at all, especially compared to the 2021 team’s rate of nearly 15 per game. That was a key part in UNC’s increased scoring output from last year, in addition to better efficiency. Against CofC, though, especially in the first half, things started looking uncomfortably familiar to those who watched last year’s squad. The Heels surrendered 11 turnovers in just the first half, three of them coming on baseline out-of-bounds plays allowing easy fast-break buckets. Davis had two of those 11 and Love had three more, including an offensive foul apiece. Leaky Black and Kerwin Walton had two more apiece, as the entire perimeter offense looked uncomfortable against the Cougars’ heavy ball pressure.

Things settled down in the second half; Love turned it over just once (though it was an incredible facepalm-inducing one, a lazy and telegraphed pass that led to a breakaway layup) and the Heels as a team gave it away just 6 times for a total of 17. Charleston’s 19 points off those 17 were a huge reason they were in the game as much as they were, and both transition defense and turnovers are going to have to be points of emphasis as the season goes on.

This team can bounce back from a gut-punch

I would’ve been hesitant to say this after the Brown game, because that consisted less of a comeback and more of a creep-back where you still felt fairly fortunate that the Heels led at the end. This one had a different feeling, though — CofC brought a fight to the Heels, and outright looked like the better team for the better part of the first 10 minutes on their way to a 26-15 lead, even after they cooled down from a hot-shooting start. UNC spent the rest of the half trading baskets with the Cougars, going into some funky lineups by necessity after both point guards picked up two fouls. They didn’t cut too much into a nine-point deficit and went to the half down 36-42. Then, to open the second half, the Heels came out legitimately swinging. Brady Manek opened proceedings with a three-pointer, R.J Davis sliced into the Charleston defense a couple of times for a layup and free throws, Caleb Love hit a nasty stepback from the corner, and then another three from Manek gave UNC the lead. They briefly gave it back with a three-pointer on the other end, then an Armando Bacot layup put the Heels up 50-49, and they never looked back. That 14-7 run made the game look entirely different than it had: The Heels looked much less intimidated by ball pressure, more confident in their ability to win one-on-one against whoever was guarding them, and that confidence carried over to the defensive end, where they got much better at guarding the three-point line. Throughout the second half, which ended 58-41 in favor of the Heels, UNC looked legitimately like a ranked team playing a spirited mid-major, absolutely controlling the game. The Brown game was an instance of survival, but this was different: this was elevating the team’s play in the face of a challenge and asserting themselves as the team that deserved to win, and that’s something we haven’t seen enough of in Chapel Hill lately.

Holy moly, offense

Here’s an advanced stat for you: Through three games, the Heels have an effective field goal percentage of better than 63% and a true shooting percentage better than 66%. That’s not just miles better than the last two years, that’s still significantly better than teams like 2019, 2017, and 2012. Sure, the competition is only going to get much better from this point on, but still, it’s been clear that the offensive ability of this team is leagues better than we’re used to seeing. Between having shooting threats at point guard, wing, and in the frontcourt, Love and Davis both finally finding space to drive and get fouled going to the basket, Armando Bacot’s frankly insane footwork and touch around the basket (he’s UNC’s second-leading scorer and has missed five shots all year), we’ve been treated to a special display of scoring skill through three games. Just as impressive as the efficiency of this offense has been its multiplicity. Five Heels are averaging double-figure scoring right now: Love with 19 points per game, Bacot with 18, Brady Manek chips in 17, Davis just under 13, and Kerwin Walton adds 10. Already, it feels like the Heels both have multiple players who can take over a scoring load when necessary and that they have enough gifted scorers that one or two slumping isn’t going to tank the team. Oh, and we haven’t even seen it hitting all cylinders yet: Love and Davis have yet to simultaneously go off in a game, Dawson Garcia is still adjusting to the physicality required of him in his new role, and Walton’s 14-point outburst last night promised even better if he can just shore up the defensive side of things.