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UNC vs. Gardner-Webb: Three Things Learned

Despite being undefeated, there are still areas that need improving.

NCAA Basketball: Gardner-Webb at North Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

For the third straight game, Carolina struggled to put away a team with inferior size and talent, ultimately defeating Gardner-Webb, 72-66. That said, they are 3-0 and still the top-ranked team in the land. While it wasn’t always pretty, the Heels were in control for the vast majority of the game. It’s a very long season, but there are clearly some things to work on and improve if this team wants to get back to the Final Four. Without further ado, here are three things learned from last night’s battle with the Runnin’ Bulldogs.

Pete Nance is a Dude

Since committing to the Tar Heels back in June, Pete Nance has generated plenty of buzz. At Northwestern, he was heavily relied on as a scorer and shot an impressive 45% from beyond the arc. Given the offensive firepower already on the team, it’s natural to wonder how prominent his role might be in that department. In the first two games, Nance appeared hesitant to attack and hunt for his shot with just eight field goal attempts over those contests.

As mentioned in the broadcast, there was a conversation between Nance and Hubert Davis that may have contributed to the shift we saw last night. Nance told Coach Davis he’s just trying to fit in and Davis simply responded, “I don’t need you to fit in, I need you to be a dude.” Nance took that to heart as he came out aggressive from the jump, scoring 14 of the Heels’ first 18 points.

For the night, Nance ended up with 18 points, 3 blocks, and 5 rebounds on 6-9 shooting. Not only did he knock in his first three-pointer of the season, but he sunk three of them, finishing 3-5 from deep. His outburst in the first half was instrumental in allowing Carolina to control the game while its other stars weren’t getting much going. He also put forth a tremendous defensive effort throughout and ultimately set the tone on both sides of the ball.

Learning to play a full 40 minutes

It’s still very early, and the toughest matchups are yet to come, but the Tar Heels have looked elite on both sides of the ball, just rarely at the same time. In the opener against UNCW, Carolina won with its length, athleticism, and continuity on the defensive end. They then got into a track meet with College of Charleston and put up 102 points. In this one, there were plays made on both sides, but the lack of consistency allowed Gardner-Webb to remain in the game in the second half.

At the end of the day, effort is the biggest factor. Although Carolina finally won the rebounding battle (40-38), you would expect the margin to be a little more significant. The Heels were boxing out more effectively and the intensity was definitely there at times, but they still got beat out on too many loose balls. When you’re UNC and you’re the number one team in the country, every team you play is going to bring a fight. This team needs to do a better job of not just matching that energy, but maintaining it for an entire game.

UNC needs Puff Johnson

While Carolina has gotten solid minutes out of guys like Seth Trimble, D’Marco Dunn, Dontrez Styles, and Tyler Nickel, Coach Davis needs more production from his bench. This is a team that has been touted for having potentially the deepest roster in the country. Yet, the Heels recorded just three bench points as opposed to 19 from Gardner-Webb. There’s one Carolina reserve that possesses the best combination of ability and experience, and that man is Puff Johnson.

As most already know, Johnson has been sidelined with a knee issue to start the season. He was recently cleared to practice again and aims to make his season debut in Portland for the Phil Knight Invitational. This could not come at a better time for the Heels as they prepare for a rise in competition.

Johnson broke out in last year’s tournament, culminating with an inspiring 11-point, 6-rebound performance in the national championship that allowed the Heels to remain within striking distance. His combination of length and shooting ability makes him extremely versatile and could be back-breaking for opposing defenses. He’s a guy that always brings the intensity and refuses to give up on plays. Johnson’s return could be the key in proving that Carolina’s depth is, in fact, legitimate.