If you chose to not watch this game because you were spending time with your friends and family for Thanksgiving, you may have saved your blood pressure. The Tar Heels were in the fight of their lives against the Portland Pilots for most of their opening game in the Phil Knight Invitational, and while the 89-81 score doesn’t sound that bad, things were way closer than they appear. How close, you ask? Portland led in this one for 13:49, and if it weren’t for lots of foul calls on the Pilots, we would’ve been discussing a massive upset.
Caleb Love came to play in this game, and while his second half was pretty rough at times, he had a near-perfect first half. He scored 16 points off 7-9 shooting in the first 20 minutes, and added in three assists. He looked like a completely different player than what we’ve seen this season: he had really good shot selection, made all of the right passes, and didn’t try to do too much. He was the only player to reach double digits in the opening minutes, though Pete Nance was also very impressive as well. He scored eight points in the first half, and went 2-3 from deep.
So what was the problem, you may ask? The answer is the defense: the Pilots finished the first half shooting 52% from the field, and 43.8% from three. Moses Wood was a terror the entire game, scoring 13 points in the first half, and 21 points for the entire game. Alden Applewhite also gave the Heels fits with his 14 points, though he wasn’t nearly as effective from the three-point line.
Things did get much better in the second half from a numbers perspective, but it most certainly didn’t feel that way while watching the game. The Pilots never took their feet off the gas, and kept taking the lead back despite the Heels’ best efforts to try to put them away. Pete Nance came up huge in the second half, scoring 20 of his team-high 28 points, and knocked down three of his five shots from deep for the game. Love cooled off a bit from his first half performance, but he still went 50% from the field regardless. The biggest factor in the second half, however, were the referees: they called 17 fouls on Portland, after only calling six on them in the first half. Needless to say, UNC needed every single one of their 14 free-throw makes to come away with the victory.
One big factor in this game that may not get discussed much at the end of the day is that Portland had 25 bench points compared to UNC’s three. The Heels’ lone bench points came from D’Marco Dunn, who hit a three during the first half. Hubert Davis is still struggling to get production from the bench despite Puff Johnson’s return, but hopefully we will see him as well as a couple of others contribute more in the coming weeks.
All and all, the Heels fought tooth and nail in order to prevent one of the biggest Thanksgiving upsets we’ve ever seen, and they managed to do so by a hair. I wouldn’t put too much stock in the final score, because truly the Pilots were a few opportunistic plays away from getting their biggest win in program history. Thankfully that’s not what happened, and now we can all enjoy some turkey without wondering if it will stay down.